PDF version of Section A.
Anarchism, more than anything else, is about the efforts of millions of revolutionaries changing the world in the last two centuries. Here we will discuss some of the high points of this movement, all of them of a profoundly anti-capitalist nature.
Anarchism is about radically changing the world, not just making the present system less inhuman by encouraging the anarchistic tendencies within it to grow and develop. While no purely anarchist revolution has taken place yet, there have been numerous ones with a highly anarchist character and level of participation. And while these have all been destroyed, in each case it has been at the hands of outside force brought against them (backed either by Communists or Capitalists), not because of any internal problems in anarchism itself. These revolutions, despite their failure to survive in the face of overwhelming force, have been both an inspiration for anarchists and proof that anarchism is a viable social theory and can be practised on a large scale.
What these revolutions share is the fact they are, to use Proudhon’s term, a “revolution from below” — they were examples of “collective activity, of popular spontaneity.” It is only a transformation of society from the bottom up by the action of the oppressed themselves that can create a free society. As Proudhon asked, “[w]hat serious and lasting Revolution was not made from below, by the people?” For this reason an anarchist is a “revolutionary from below.“ Thus the social revolutions and mass movements we discuss in this section are examples of popular self-activity and self-liberation (as Proudhon put it in 1848, “the proletariat must emancipate itself”). [quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, p. 143 and p. 125] All anarchists echo Proudhon’s idea of revolutionary change from below, the creation of a new society by the actions of the oppressed themselves. Bakunin, for example, argued that anarchists are “foes . . . of all State organisations as such, and believe that the people can only be happy and free, when, organised from below by means of its own autonomous and completely free associations, without the supervision of any guardians, it will create its own life.” [Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 63] In section J.7 we discuss what anarchists think a social revolution is and what it involves.
Many of these revolutions and revolutionary movements are relatively unknown to non-anarchists. Most people will have heard of the Russian revolution but few will know of the popular movements which were its life-blood before the Bolsheviks seized power or the role that the anarchists played in it. Few will have heard of the Paris Commune, the Italian factory occupations or the Spanish collectives. This is unsurprising for, as Hebert Read notes, history “is of two kinds — a record of events that take place publicly, that make the headlines in the newspapers and get embodied in official records — we might call this overground history” but “taking place at the same time, preparing for these public events, anticipating them, is another kind of history, that is not embodied in official records, an invisible underground history.” [quoted by William R. McKercher, Freedom and Authority, p. 155] Almost by definition, popular movements and revolts are part of “underground history”, the social history which gets ignored in favour of elite history, the accounts of the kings, queens, politicians and wealthy whose fame is the product of the crushing of the many.
This means our examples of “anarchy in action” are part of what the Russian anarchist Voline called “The Unknown Revolution.” Voline used that expression as the title of his classic account of the Russian revolution he was an active participant of. He used it to refer to the rarely acknowledged independent, creative actions of the people themselves. As Voline put it, “it is not known how to study a revolution” and most historians “mistrust and ignore those developments which occur silently in the depths of the revolution . . . at best, they accord them a few words in passing . . . [Yet] it is precisely these hidden facts which are important, and which throw a true light on the events under consideration and on the period.” [The Unknown Revolution, p. 19] Anarchism, based as it is on revolution from below, has contributed considerably to both the “underground history” and the “unknown revolution” of the past few centuries and this section of the FAQ will shed some light on its achievements.
It is important to point out that these examples are of wide-scale social experiments and do not imply that we ignore the undercurrent of anarchist practice which exists in everyday life, even under capitalism. Both Peter Kropotkin (in Mutual Aid) and Colin Ward (in Anarchy in Action) have documented the many ways in which ordinary people, usually unaware of anarchism, have worked together as equals to meet their common interests. As Colin Ward argues, “an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.” [Anarchy in Action, p. 14]
Anarchism is not only about a future society, it is also about the social struggle happening today. It is not a condition but a process, which we create by our self-activity and self-liberation.
By the 1960’s, however, many commentators were writing off the anarchist movement as a thing of the past. Not only had fascism finished off European anarchist movements in the years before and during the war, but in the post-war period these movements were prevented from recovering by the capitalist West on one hand and the Leninist East on the other. Over the same period of time, anarchism had been repressed in the US, Latin America, China, Korea (where a social revolution with anarchist content was put down before the Korean War), and Japan. Even in the one or two countries that escaped the worst of the repression, the combination of the Cold War and international isolation saw libertarian unions like the Swedish SAC become reformist.
But the 60’s were a decade of new struggle, and all over the world the ‘New Left’ looked to anarchism as well as elsewhere for its ideas. Many of the prominent figures of the massive explosion of May 1968 in France considered themselves anarchists. Although these movements themselves degenerated, those coming out of them kept the idea alive and began to construct new movements. The death of Franco in 1975 saw a massive rebirth of anarchism in Spain, with up to 500,000 people attending the CNT’s first post-Franco rally. The return to a limited democracy in some South American countries in the late 70’s and 80’s saw a growth in anarchism there. Finally, in the late 80’s it was anarchists who struck the first blows against the Leninist USSR, with the first protest march since 1928 being held in Moscow by anarchists in 1987.
Today the anarchist movement, although still weak, organises tens of thousands of revolutionaries in many countries. Spain, Sweden and Italy all have libertarian union movements organising some 250,000 between them. Most other European countries have several thousand active anarchists. Anarchist groups have appeared for the first time in other countries, including Nigeria and Turkey. In South America the movement has recovered massively. A contact sheet circulated by the Venezuelan anarchist group Corrio A lists over 100 organisations in just about every country.
Perhaps the recovery is slowest in North America, but there, too, all the libertarian organisations seem to be undergoing significant growth. As this growth accelerates, many more examples of anarchy in action will be created and more and more people will take part in anarchist organisations and activities, making this part of the FAQ less and less important.
However, it is essential to highlight mass examples of anarchism working on a large scale in order to avoid the specious accusation of “utopianism.” As history is written by the winners, these examples of anarchy in action are often hidden from view in obscure books. Rarely are they mentioned in the schools and universities (or if mentioned, they are distorted). Needless to say, the few examples we give are just that, a few.
Anarchism has a long history in many countries, and we cannot attempt to document every example, just those we consider to be important. We are also sorry if the examples seem Eurocentric. We have, due to space and time considerations, had to ignore the syndicalist revolt (1910 to 1914) and the shop steward movement (1917-21) in Britain, Germany (1919-21), Portugal (1974), the Mexican revolution, anarchists in the Cuban revolution, the struggle in Korea against Japanese (then US and Russian) imperialism during and after the Second World War, Hungary (1956), the “the refusal of work” revolt in the late 1960’s (particularly in “the hot Autumn” in Italy, 1969), the UK miner’s strike (1984-85), the struggle against the Poll Tax in Britain (1988-92), the strikes in France in 1986 and 1995, the Italian COBAS movement in the 80’s and 90’s, the popular assemblies and self-managed occupied workplaces during the Argentine revolt at the start of the 21st century and numerous other major struggles that have involved anarchist ideas of self-management (ideas that usually develop from the movement themselves, without anarchists necessarily playing a major, or “leading”, role).
For anarchists, revolutions and mass struggles are “festivals of the oppressed,” when ordinary people start to act for themselves and change both themselves and the world.
The Paris Commune of 1871 played an important role in the development of both anarchist ideas and the movement. As Bakunin commented at the time,
“revolutionary socialism [i.e. anarchism] has just attempted its first striking and practical demonstration in the Paris Commune . . . [It] show[ed] to all enslaved peoples (and are there any masses that are not slaves?) the only road to emancipation and health; Paris inflict[ed] a mortal blow upon the political traditions of bourgeois radicalism and [gave] a real basis to revolutionary socialism.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, pp. 263-4]
The Paris Commune was created after France was defeated by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian war. The French government tried to send in troops to regain the Parisian National Guard’s cannon to prevent it from falling into the hands of the population. “Learning that the Versailles soldiers were trying to seize the cannon,” recounted participant Louise Michel, “men and women of Montmarte swarmed up the Butte in surprise manoeuvre. Those people who were climbing up the Butte believed they would die, but they were prepared to pay the price.” The soldiers refused to fire on the jeering crowd and turned their weapons on their officers. This was March 18th; the Commune had begun and “the people wakened . . . The eighteenth of March could have belonged to the allies of kings, or to foreigners, or to the people. It was the people’s.” [Red Virgin: Memoirs of Louise Michel, p. 64]
In the free elections called by the Parisian National Guard, the citizens of Paris elected a council made up of a majority of Jacobins and Republicans and a minority of socialists (mostly Blanquists — authoritarian socialists — and followers of the anarchist Proudhon). This council proclaimed Paris autonomous and desired to recreate France as a confederation of communes (i.e. communities). Within the Commune, the elected council people were recallable and paid an average wage. In addition, they had to report back to the people who had elected them and were subject to recall by electors if they did not carry out their mandates.
Why this development caught the imagination of anarchists is clear — it has strong similarities with anarchist ideas. In fact, the example of the Paris Commune was in many ways similar to how Bakunin had predicted that a revolution would have to occur — a major city declaring itself autonomous, organising itself, leading by example, and urging the rest of the planet to follow it. (See “Letter to Albert Richards” in Bakunin on Anarchism). The Paris Commune began the process of creating a new society, one organised from the bottom up. It was “a blow for the decentralisation of political power.” [Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Paris Commune,” Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, p. 67]
Many anarchists played a role within the Commune — for example Louise Michel, the Reclus brothers, and Eugene Varlin (the latter murdered in the repression afterwards). As for the reforms initiated by the Commune, such as the re-opening of workplaces as co-operatives, anarchists can see their ideas of associated labour beginning to be realised. By May, 43 workplaces were co-operatively run and the Louvre Museum was a munitions factory run by a workers’ council. Echoing Proudhon, a meeting of the Mechanics Union and the Association of Metal Workers argued that “our economic emancipation . . . can only be obtained through the formation of workers’ associations, which alone can transform our position from that of wage earners to that of associates.” They instructed their delegates to the Commune’s Commission on Labour Organisation to support the following objectives:
“The abolition of the exploitation of man by man, the last vestige of slavery;
“The organisation of labour in mutual associations and inalienable capital.”
In this way, they hoped to ensure that “equality must not be an empty word” in the Commune. [The Paris Commune of 1871: The View from the Left, Eugene Schulkind (ed.), p. 164] The Engineers Union voted at a meeting on 23rd of April that since the aim of the Commune should be “economic emancipation” it should “organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility” in order “to suppress the exploitation of man by man.” [quoted by Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871, pp. 263-4]
As well as self-managed workers’ associations, the Communards practised direct democracy in a network popular clubs, popular organisations similar to the directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies (“sections”) of the French Revolution. “People, govern yourselves through your public meetings, through your press” proclaimed the newspaper of one Club. The commune was seen as an expression of the assembled people, for (to quote another Club) “Communal power resides in each arrondissement [neighbourhood] wherever men are assembled who have a horror of the yoke and of servitude.” Little wonder that Gustave Courbet, artist friend and follower of Proudhon, proclaimed Paris as “a true paradise . . . all social groups have established themselves as federations and are masters of their own fate.” [quoted by Martin Phillip Johnson, The Paradise of Association, p. 5 and p. 6]
In addition the Commune’s “Declaration to the French People” which echoed many key anarchist ideas. It saw the “political unity” of society as being based on “the voluntary association of all local initiatives, the free and spontaneous concourse of all individual energies for the common aim, the well-being, the liberty and the security of all.” [quoted by Edwards, Op. Cit., p. 218] The new society envisioned by the communards was one based on the “absolute autonomy of the Commune. . . assuring to each its integral rights and to each Frenchman the full exercise of his aptitudes, as a man, a citizen and a labourer. The autonomy of the Commune will have for its limits only the equal autonomy of all other communes adhering to the contract; their association must ensure the liberty of France.” [“Declaration to the French People”, quoted by George Woodcock, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: A Biography, pp. 276-7] With its vision of a confederation of communes, Bakunin was correct to assert that the Paris Commune was “a bold, clearly formulated negation of the State.” [Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 264]
Moreover, the Commune’s ideas on federation obviously reflected the influence of Proudhon on French radical ideas. Indeed, the Commune’s vision of a communal France based on a federation of delegates bound by imperative mandates issued by their electors and subject to recall at any moment echoes Proudhon’s ideas (Proudhon had argued in favour of the “implementation of the binding mandate” in 1848 [No Gods, No Masters, p. 63] and for federation of communes in his work The Principle of Federation).
Thus both economically and politically the Paris Commune was heavily influenced by anarchist ideas. Economically, the theory of associated production expounded by Proudhon and Bakunin became consciously revolutionary practice. Politically, in the Commune’s call for federalism and autonomy, anarchists see their “future social organisation. . . [being] carried out from the bottom up, by the free association or federation of workers, starting with associations, then going into the communes, the regions, the nations, and, finally, culminating in a great international and universal federation.” [Bakunin, Op. Cit., p. 270]
However, for anarchists the Commune did not go far enough. It did not abolish the state within the Commune, as it had abolished it beyond it. The Communards organised themselves “in a Jacobin manner” (to use Bakunin’s cutting term). As Peter Kropotkin pointed out, while “proclaiming the free Commune, the people of Paris proclaimed an essential anarchist principle . . . they stopped mid-course” and gave “themselves a Communal Council copied from the old municipal councils.” Thus the Paris Commune did not “break with the tradition of the State, of representative government, and it did not attempt to achieve within the Commune that organisation from the simple to the complex it inaugurated by proclaiming the independence and free federation of the Communes.” This lead to disaster as the Commune council became “immobilised . . . by red tape” and lost “the sensitivity that comes from continued contact with the masses . . . Paralysed by their distancing from the revolutionary centre — the people — they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.” [Words of a Rebel, p. 97, p. 93 and p. 97]
In addition, its attempts at economic reform did not go far enough, making no attempt to turn all workplaces into co-operatives (i.e. to expropriate capital) and forming associations of these co-operatives to co-ordinate and support each other’s economic activities. Paris, stressed Voltairine de Cleyre, “failed to strike at economic tyranny, and so came of what it could have achieved” which was a “free community whose economic affairs shall be arranged by the groups of actual producers and distributors, eliminating the useless and harmful element now in possession of the world’s capital.” [Op. Cit., p. 67] As the city was under constant siege by the French army, it is understandable that the Communards had other things on their minds. However, for Kropotkin such a position was a disaster:
“They treated the economic question as a secondary one, which would be attended to later on, after the triumph of the Commune . . . But the crushing defeat which soon followed, and the blood-thirsty revenge taken by the middle class, proved once more that the triumph of a popular Commune was materially impossible without a parallel triumph of the people in the economic field.” [Op. Cit., p. 74]
Anarchists drew the obvious conclusions, arguing that “if no central government was needed to rule the independent Communes, if the national Government is thrown overboard and national unity is obtained by free federation, then a central municipal Government becomes equally useless and noxious. The same federative principle would do within the Commune.” [Kropotkin, Evolution and Environment, p. 75] Instead of abolishing the state within the commune by organising federations of directly democratic mass assemblies, like the Parisian “sections” of the revolution of 1789-93 (see Kropotkin’s Great French Revolution for more on these), the Paris Commune kept representative government and suffered for it. “Instead of acting for themselves . . . the people, confiding in their governors, entrusted them the charge of taking the initiative. This was the first consequence of the inevitable result of elections.” The council soon became “the greatest obstacle to the revolution” thus proving the “political axiom that a government cannot be revolutionary.” [Anarchism, p. 240, p. 241 and p. 249]
The council become more and more isolated from the people who elected it, and thus more and more irrelevant. And as its irrelevance grew, so did its authoritarian tendencies, with the Jacobin majority creating a “Committee of Public Safety” to “defend” (by terror) the “revolution.” The Committee was opposed by the libertarian socialist minority and was, fortunately, ignored in practice by the people of Paris as they defended their freedom against the French army, which was attacking them in the name of capitalist civilisation and “liberty.” On May 21st, government troops entered the city, followed by seven days of bitter street fighting. Squads of soldiers and armed members of the bourgeoisie roamed the streets, killing and maiming at will. Over 25,000 people were killed in the street fighting, many murdered after they had surrendered, and their bodies dumped in mass graves. As a final insult, Sacr³ Coeur was built by the bourgeoisie on the birth place of the Commune, the Butte of Montmarte, to atone for the radical and atheist revolt which had so terrified them.
For anarchists, the lessons of the Paris Commune were threefold. Firstly, a decentralised confederation of communities is the necessary political form of a free society (“This was the form that the social revolution must take — the independent commune.” [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 163]). Secondly, “there is no more reason for a government inside a Commune than for government above the Commune.” This means that an anarchist community will be based on a confederation of neighbourhood and workplace assemblies freely co-operating together. Thirdly, it is critically important to unify political and economic revolutions into a social revolution. “They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!“ [Peter Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel , p. 97]
For more anarchist perspectives on the Paris Commune see Kropotkin’s essay “The Paris Commune” in Words of a Rebel (and The Anarchist Reader) and Bakunin’s “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State” in Bakunin on Anarchism.
May 1st is a day of special significance for the labour movement. While it has been hijacked in the past by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, the labour movement festival of May Day is a day of world-wide solidarity. A time to remember past struggles and demonstrate our hope for a better future. A day to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all.
The history of Mayday is closely linked with the anarchist movement and the struggles of working people for a better world. Indeed, it originated with the execution of four anarchists in Chicago in 1886 for organising workers in the fight for the eight-hour day. Thus May Day is a product of “anarchy in action” — of the struggle of working people using direct action in labour unions to change the world.
It began in the 1880s in the USA. In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (created in 1881, it changed its name in 1886 to the American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organisations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution.” A call for strikes on May 1st, 1886 was made in support of this demand.
In Chicago the anarchists were the main force in the union movement, and partially as a result of their presence, the unions translated this call into strikes on May 1st. The anarchists thought that the eight hour day could only be won through direct action and solidarity. They considered that struggles for reforms, like the eight hour day, were not enough in themselves. They viewed them as only one battle in an ongoing class war that would only end by social revolution and the creation of a free society. It was with these ideas that they organised and fought.
In Chicago alone, 400 000 workers went out and the threat of strike action ensured that more than 45 000 were granted a shorter working day without striking. On May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of pickets at the McCormick Harvester Machine Company, killing at least one striker, seriously wounding five or six others, and injuring an undetermined number. Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality. According to the Mayor, “nothing had occurred yet, or looked likely to occur to require interference.” However, as the meeting was breaking up a column of 180 police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. At this moment a bomb was thrown into the police ranks, who opened fire on the crowd. How many civilians were wounded or killed by the police was never exactly ascertained.
A reign of terror swept over Chicago. Meeting halls, union offices, printing shops and private homes were raided (usually without warrants). Such raids into working-class areas allowed the police to round up all known anarchists and other socialists. Many suspects were beaten up and some bribed. “Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards” was the public statement of J. Grinnell, the States Attorney, when a question was raised about search warrants. [“Editor’s Introduction”, The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 7]
Eight anarchists were put on trial for accessory to murder. No pretence was made that any of the accused had carried out or even planned the bomb. Instead the jury were told “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.” [Op. Cit., p. 8] The jury was selected by a special bailiff, nominated by the State’s Attorney and was composed of businessmen and a relative of one of the cops killed. The defence was not allowed to present evidence that the special bailiff had publicly claimed “I am managing this case and I know what I am about. These fellows are going to be hanged as certain as death.” [Ibid.] Not surprisingly, the accused were convicted. Seven were sentenced to death, one to 15 years’ imprisonment.
An international campaign resulted in two of the death sentences being commuted to life, but the world wide protest did not stop the US state. Of the remaining five, one (Louis Lingg) cheated the executioner and killed himself on the eve of the execution. The remaining four (Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were hanged on November 11th 1887. They are known in Labour history as the Haymarket Martyrs. Between 150,000 and 500,000 lined the route taken by the funeral cortege and between 10,000 to 25,000 were estimated to have watched the burial.
In 1889, the American delegation attending the International Socialist congress in Paris proposed that May 1st be adopted as a workers’ holiday. This was to commemorate working class struggle and the “Martyrdom of the Chicago Eight”. Since then Mayday has became a day for international solidarity. In 1893, the new Governor of Illinois made official what the working class in Chicago and across the world knew all along and pardoned the Martyrs because of their obvious innocence and because “the trial was not fair”.
The authorities had believed at the time of the trial that such persecution would break the back of the labour movement. They were wrong. In the words of August Spies when he addressed the court after he had been sentenced to die:
“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labour movement . . . the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in misery and want, expect salvation — if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you — and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.” [Op. Cit., pp. 8-9]
At the time and in the years to come, this defiance of the state and capitalism was to win thousands to anarchism, particularly in the US itself. Since the Haymarket event, anarchists have celebrated May Day (on the 1st of May — the reformist unions and labour parties moved its marches to the first Sunday of the month). We do so to show our solidarity with other working class people across the world, to celebrate past and present struggles, to show our power and remind the ruling class of their vulnerability. As Nestor Makhno put it:
“That day those American workers attempted, by organising themselves, to give expression to their protest against the iniquitous order of the State and Capital of the propertied . . .
“The workers of Chicago . . . had gathered to resolve, in common, the problems of their lives and their struggles. . .
“Today too . . . the toilers . . . regard the first of May as the occasion of a get-together when they will concern themselves with their own affairs and consider the matter of their emancipation.” [The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, pp. 59-60]
Anarchists stay true to the origins of May Day and celebrate its birth in the direct action of the oppressed. Oppression and exploitation breed resistance and, for anarchists, May Day is an international symbol of that resistance and power — a power expressed in the last words of August Spies, chiselled in stone on the monument to the Haymarket martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago:
“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”
To understand why the state and business class were so determined to hang the Chicago Anarchists, it is necessary to realise they were considered the “leaders” of a massive radical union movement. In 1884, the Chicago Anarchists produced the world’s first daily anarchist newspaper, the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeiting. This was written, read, owned and published by the German immigrant working class movement. The combined circulation of this daily plus a weekly (Vorbote) and a Sunday edition (Fackel) more than doubled, from 13,000 per issues in 1880 to 26,980 in 1886. Anarchist weekly papers existed for other ethnic groups as well (one English, one Bohemian and one Scandinavian).
Anarchists were very active in the Central Labour Union (which included the eleven largest unions in the city) and aimed to make it, in the words of Albert Parsons (one of the Martyrs), “the embryonic group of the future ‘free society.'” The anarchists were also part of the International Working People’s Association (also called the “Black International”) which had representatives from 26 cities at its founding convention. The I.W.P.A. soon “made headway among trade unions, especially in the mid-west” and its ideas of “direct action of the rank and file” and of trade unions “serv[ing] as the instrument of the working class for the complete destruction of capitalism and the nucleus for the formation of a new society” became known as the “Chicago Idea” (an idea which later inspired the Industrial Workers of the World which was founded in Chicago in 1905). [“Editor’s Introduction,” The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, p. 4]
This idea was expressed in the manifesto issued at the I.W.P.A.’s Pittsburgh Congress of 1883:
“First — Destruction of the existing class rule, by all means, i.e. by energetic, relentless, revolutionary and international action.
“Second — Establishment of a free society based upon co-operative organisation of production.
“Third — Free exchange of equivalent products by and between the productive organisations without commerce and profit-mongery.
“Fourth — Organisation of education on a secular, scientific and equal basis for both sexes.
“Fifth — Equal rights for all without distinction to sex or race.
“Sixth — Regulation of all public affairs by free contracts between autonomous (independent) communes and associations, resting on a federalistic basis.” [Op. Cit., p. 42]
In addition to their union organising, the Chicago anarchist movement also organised social societies, picnics, lectures, dances, libraries and a host of other activities. These all helped to forge a distinctly working-class revolutionary culture in the heart of the “American Dream.” The threat to the ruling class and their system was too great to allow it to continue (particularly with memories of the vast uprising of labour in 1877 still fresh. As in 1886, that revolt was also meet by state violence — see Strike! by J. Brecher for details of this strike movement as well as the Haymarket events). Hence the repression, kangaroo court, and the state murder of those the state and capitalist class considered “leaders” of the movement.
For more on the Haymarket Martyrs, their lives and their ideas, the The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs is essential reading. Albert Parsons, the only American born Martyr, produced a book which explained what they stood for called Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis. Historian Paul Avrich’s The Haymarket Tragedy is a useful in depth account of the events.
Just before the turn of the century in Europe, the anarchist movement began to create one of the most successful attempts to apply anarchist organisational ideas in everyday life. This was the building of mass revolutionary unions (also known as syndicalism or anarcho-syndicalism). The syndicalist movement, in the words of a leading French syndicalist militant, was “a practical schooling in anarchism” for it was “a laboratory of economic struggles” and organised “along anarchic lines.” By organising workers into “libertarian organisations,” the syndicalist unions were creating the “free associations of free producers” within capitalism to combat it and, ultimately, replace it. [Fernand Pelloutier, No Gods, No Masters, vol. 2, p. 57, p. 55 and p. 56]
While the details of syndicalist organisation varied from country to country, the main lines were the same. Workers should form themselves into unions (or syndicates, the French for union). While organisation by industry was generally the preferred form, craft and trade organisations were also used. These unions were directly controlled by their members and would federate together on an industrial and geographical basis. Thus a given union would be federated with all the local unions in a given town, region and country as well as with all the unions within its industry into a national union (of, say, miners or metal workers). Each union was autonomous and all officials were part-time (and paid their normal wages if they missed work on union business). The tactics of syndicalism were direct action and solidarity and its aim was to replace capitalism by the unions providing the basic framework of the new, free, society.
Thus, for anarcho-syndicalism, “the trade union is by no means a mere transitory phenomenon bound up with the duration of capitalist society, it is the germ of the Socialist economy of the future, the elementary school of Socialism in general.” The “economic fighting organisation of the workers” gives their members “every opportunity for direct action in their struggles for daily bread, it also provides them with the necessary preliminaries for carrying through the reorganisation of social life on a [libertarian] Socialist plan by them own strength.” [Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 59 and p. 62] Anarcho-syndicalism, to use the expression of the I.W.W., aims to build the new world in the shell of the old.
In the period from the 1890’s to the outbreak of World War I, anarchists built revolutionary unions in most European countries (particularly in Spain, Italy and France). In addition, anarchists in South and North America were also successful in organising syndicalist unions (particularly Cuba, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil). Almost all industrialised countries had some syndicalist movement, although Europe and South America had the biggest and strongest ones. These unions were organised in a confederal manner, from the bottom up, along anarchist lines. They fought with capitalists on a day-to-day basis around the issue of better wages and working conditions and the state for social reforms, but they also sought to overthrow capitalism through the revolutionary general strike.
Thus hundreds of thousands of workers around the world were applying anarchist ideas in everyday life, proving that anarchy was no utopian dream but a practical method of organising on a wide scale. That anarchist organisational techniques encouraged member participation, empowerment and militancy, and that they also successfully fought for reforms and promoted class consciousness, can be seen in the growth of anarcho-syndicalist unions and their impact on the labour movement. The Industrial Workers of the World, for example, still inspires union activists and has, throughout its long history, provided many union songs and slogans.
However, as a mass movement, syndicalism effectively ended by the 1930s. This was due to two factors. Firstly, most of the syndicalist unions were severely repressed just after World War I. In the immediate post-war years they reached their height. This wave of militancy was known as the “red years” in Italy, where it attained its high point with factory occupations (see section A.5.5). But these years also saw the destruction of these unions in country after county. In the USA, for example, the I.W.W. was crushed by a wave of repression backed whole-heartedly by the media, the state, and the capitalist class. Europe saw capitalism go on the offensive with a new weapon — fascism. Fascism arose (first in Italy and, most infamously, in Germany) as an attempt by capitalism to physically smash the organisations the working class had built. This was due to radicalism that had spread across Europe in the wake of the war ending, inspired by the example of Russia. Numerous near revolutions had terrified the bourgeoisie, who turned to fascism to save their system.
In country after country, anarchists were forced to flee into exile, vanish from sight, or became victims of assassins or concentration camps after their (often heroic) attempts at fighting fascism failed. In Portugal, for example, the 100,000 strong anarcho-syndicalist CGT union launched numerous revolts in the late 1920s and early 1930s against fascism. In January 1934, the CGT called for a revolutionary general strike which developed into a five day insurrection. A state of siege was declared by the state, which used extensive force to crush the rebellion. The CGT, whose militants had played a prominent and courageous role in the insurrection, was completely smashed and Portugal remained a fascist state for the next 40 years. [Phil Mailer, Portugal: The Impossible Revolution, pp. 72-3] In Spain, the CNT (the most famous anarcho-syndicalist union) fought a similar battle. By 1936, it claimed one and a half million members. As in Italy and Portugal, the capitalist class embraced fascism to save their power from the dispossessed, who were becoming confident of their power and their right to manage their own lives (see section A.5.6).
As well as fascism, syndicalism also faced the negative influence of Leninism. The apparent success of the Russian revolution led many activists to turn to authoritarian politics, particularly in English speaking countries and, to a lesser extent, France. Such notable syndicalist activists as Tom Mann in England, William Gallacher in Scotland and William Foster in the USA became Communists (the last two, it should be noted, became Stalinist). Moreover, Communist parties deliberately undermined the libertarian unions, encouraging fights and splits (as, for example, in the I.W.W.). After the end of the Second World War, the Stalinists finished off what fascism had started in Eastern Europe and destroyed the anarchist and syndicalist movements in such places as Bulgaria and Poland. In Cuba, Castro also followed Lenin’s example and did what the Batista and Machado dictatorship’s could not, namely smash the influential anarchist and syndicalist movements (see Frank Fernandez’s Cuban Anarchism for a history of this movement from its origins in the 1860s to the 21st century).
So by the start of the second world war, the large and powerful anarchist movements of Italy, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria and Portugal had been crushed by fascism (but not, we must stress, without a fight). When necessary, the capitalists supported authoritarian states in order to crush the labour movement and make their countries safe for capitalism. Only Sweden escaped this trend, where the syndicalist union the SAC is still organising workers. It is, in fact, like many other syndicalist unions active today, growing as workers turn away from bureaucratic unions whose leaders seem more interested in protecting their privileges and cutting deals with management than defending their members. In France, Spain and Italy and elsewhere, syndicalist unions are again on the rise, showing that anarchist ideas are applicable in everyday life.
Finally, it must be stressed that syndicalism has its roots in the ideas of the earliest anarchists and, consequently, was not invented in the 1890s. It is true that development of syndicalism came about, in part, as a reaction to the disastrous “propaganda by deed” period, in which individual anarchists assassinated government leaders in attempts to provoke a popular uprising and in revenge for the mass murders of the Communards and other rebels (see section A.2.18 for details). But in response to this failed and counterproductive campaign, anarchists went back to their roots and to the ideas of Bakunin. Thus, as recognised by the likes of Kropotkin and Malatesta, syndicalism was simply a return to the ideas current in the libertarian wing of the First International.
Thus we find Bakunin arguing that “it is necessary to organise the power of the proletariat. But this organisation must be the work of the proletariat itself . . . Organise, constantly organise the international militant solidarity of the workers, in every trade and country, and remember that however weak you are as isolated individuals or districts, you will constitute a tremendous, invincible power by means of universal co-operation.” As one American activist commented, this is “the same militant spirit that breathes now in the best expressions of the Syndicalist and I.W.W. movements” both of which express “a strong world wide revival of the ideas for which Bakunin laboured throughout his life.” [Max Baginski, Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth, p. 71] As with the syndicalists, Bakunin stressed the “organisation of trade sections, their federation . . . bear in themselves the living germs of the new social order, which is to replace the bourgeois world. They are creating not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.” [quoted by Rudolf Rocker, Op. Cit., p. 50]
Such ideas were repeated by other libertarians. Eugene Varlin, whose role in the Paris Commune ensured his death, advocated a socialism of associations, arguing in 1870 that syndicates were the “natural elements” for the rebuilding of society: “it is they that can easily be transformed into producer associations; it is they that can put into practice the retooling of society and the organisation of production.” [quoted by Martin Phillip Johnson, The Paradise of Association, p. 139] As we discussed in section A.5.2, the Chicago Anarchists held similar views, seeing the labour movement as both the means of achieving anarchy and the framework of the free society. As Lucy Parsons (the wife of Albert) put it “we hold that the granges, trade-unions, Knights of Labour assemblies, etc., are the embryonic groups of the ideal anarchistic society . . .” [contained in Albert R. Parsons, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis, p. 110] These ideas fed into the revolutionary unionism of the I.W.W. As one historian notes, the “proceedings of the I.W.W.’s inaugural convention indicate that the participants were not only aware of the ‘Chicago Idea’ but were conscious of a continuity between their efforts and the struggles of the Chicago anarchists to initiate industrial unionism.” The Chicago idea represented “the earliest American expression of syndicalism.” [Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November, p. 71]
Thus, syndicalism and anarchism are not differing theories but, rather, different interpretations of the same ideas (see for a fuller discussion section H.2.8). While not all syndicalists are anarchists (some Marxists have proclaimed support for syndicalism) and not all anarchists are syndicalists (see section J.3.9 for a discussion why), all social anarchists see the need for taking part in the labour and other popular movements and encouraging libertarian forms of organisation and struggle within them. By doing this, inside and outside of syndicalist unions, anarchists are showing the validity of our ideas. For, as Kropotkin stressed, the “next revolution must from its inception bring about the seizure of the entire social wealth by the workers in order to transform it into common property. This revolution can succeed only through the workers, only if the urban and rural workers everywhere carry out this objective themselves. To that end, they must initiate their own action in the period before the revolution; this can happen only if there is a strong workers’ organisation.“ [Selected Writings on Anarchism and Revolution, p. 20] Such popular self-managed organisations cannot be anything but “anarchy in action.”
The Russian revolution of 1917 saw a huge growth in anarchism in that country and many experiments in anarchist ideas. However, in popular culture the Russian Revolution is seen not as a mass movement by ordinary people struggling towards freedom but as the means by which Lenin imposed his dictatorship on Russia. The truth is radically different. The Russian Revolution was a mass movement from below in which many different currents of ideas existed and in which millions of working people (workers in the cities and towns as well as peasants) tried to transform their world into a better place. Sadly, those hopes and dreams were crushed under the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party — first under Lenin, later under Stalin.
The Russian Revolution, like most history, is a good example of the maxim “history is written by those who win.” Most capitalist histories of the period between 1917 and 1921 ignore what the anarchist Voline called “the unknown revolution” — the revolution called forth from below by the actions of ordinary people. Leninist accounts, at best, praise this autonomous activity of workers so long as it coincides with their own party line but radically condemn it (and attribute it with the basest motives) as soon as it strays from that line. Thus Leninist accounts will praise the workers when they move ahead of the Bolsheviks (as in the spring and summer of 1917) but will condemn them when they oppose Bolshevik policy once the Bolsheviks are in power. At worse, Leninist accounts portray the movement and struggles of the masses as little more than a backdrop to the activities of the vanguard party.
For anarchists, however, the Russian Revolution is seen as a classic example of a social revolution in which the self-activity of working people played a key role. In their soviets, factory committees and other class organisations, the Russian masses were trying to transform society from a class-ridden, hierarchical statist regime into one based on liberty, equality and solidarity. As such, the initial months of the Revolution seemed to confirm Bakunin’s prediction that the “future social organisation must be made solely from the bottom upwards, by the free associations or federations of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal.” [Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings, p. 206] The soviets and factory committees expressed concretely Bakunin’s ideas and Anarchists played an important role in the struggle.
The initial overthrow of the Tsar came from the direct action of the masses. In February 1917, the women of Petrograd erupted in bread riots. On February 18th, the workers of the Putilov Works in Petrograd went on strike. By February 22nd, the strike had spread to other factories. Two days later, 200 000 workers were on strike and by February 25th the strike was virtually general. The same day also saw the first bloody clashes between protestors and the army. The turning point came on the 27th, when some troops went over to the revolutionary masses, sweeping along other units. This left the government without its means of coercion, the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was formed.
So spontaneous was this movement that all the political parties were left behind. This included the Bolsheviks, with the “Petrograd organisation of the Bolsheviks oppos[ing] the calling of strikes precisely on the eve of the revolution destined to overthrow the Tsar. Fortunately, the workers ignored the Bolshevik ‘directives’ and went on strike anyway . . . Had the workers followed its guidance, it is doubtful that the revolution would have occurred when it did.” [Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 194]
The revolution carried on in this vein of direct action from below until the new, “socialist” state was powerful enough to stop it.
For the Left, the end of Tsarism was the culmination of years of effort by socialists and anarchists everywhere. It represented the progressive wing of human thought overcoming traditional oppression, and as such was duly praised by leftists around the world. However, in Russia things were progressing. In the workplaces and streets and on the land, more and more people became convinced that abolishing feudalism politically was not enough. The overthrow of the Tsar made little real difference if feudal exploitation still existed in the economy, so workers started to seize their workplaces and peasants, the land. All across Russia, ordinary people started to build their own organisations, unions, co-operatives, factory committees and councils (or “soviets” in Russian). These organisations were initially organised in anarchist fashion, with recallable delegates and being federated with each other.
Needless to say, all the political parties and organisations played a role in this process. The two wings of the Marxist social-democrats were active (the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks), as were the Social Revolutionaries (a populist peasant based party) and the anarchists. The anarchists participated in this movement, encouraging all tendencies to self-management and urging the overthrow of the provisional government. They argued that it was necessary to transform the revolution from a purely political one into an economic/social one. Until the return of Lenin from exile, they were the only political tendency who thought along those lines.
Lenin convinced his party to adopt the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” and push the revolution forward. This meant a sharp break with previous Marxist positions, leading one ex-Bolshevik turned Menshevik to comment that Lenin had “made himself a candidate for one European throne that has been vacant for thirty years — the throne of Bakunin!” [quoted by Alexander Rabinowitch, Prelude to Revolution, p. 40] The Bolsheviks now turned to winning mass support, championing direct action and supporting the radical actions of the masses, policies in the past associated with anarchism (“the Bolsheviks launched . . . slogans which until then had been particularly and insistently been voiced by the Anarchists.” [Voline, The Unknown Revolution, p. 210]). Soon they were winning more and more votes in the soviet and factory committee elections. As Alexander Berkman argues, the “Anarchist mottoes proclaimed by the Bolsheviks did not fail to bring results. The masses relied to their flag.” [What is Anarchism?, p. 120]
The anarchists were also influential at this time. Anarchists were particularly active in the movement for workers self-management of production which existed around the factory committees (see M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control for details). They were arguing for workers and peasants to expropriate the owning class, abolish all forms of government and re-organise society from the bottom up using their own class organisations — the soviets, the factory committees, co-operatives and so on. They could also influence the direction of struggle. As Alexander Rabinowitch (in his study of the July uprising of 1917) notes:
“At the rank-and-file level, particularly within the [Petrograd] garrison and at the Kronstadt naval base, there was in fact very little to distinguish Bolshevik from Anarchist. . . The Anarchist-Communists and the Bolsheviks competed for the support of the same uneducated, depressed, and dissatisfied elements of the population, and the fact is that in the summer of 1917, the Anarchist-Communists, with the support they enjoyed in a few important factories and regiments, possessed an undeniable capacity to influence the course of events. Indeed, the Anarchist appeal was great enough in some factories and military units to influence the actions of the Bolsheviks themselves.” [Op. Cit., p. 64]
Indeed, one leading Bolshevik stated in June, 1917 (in response to a rise in anarchist influence), “[b]y fencing ourselves off from the Anarchists, we may fence ourselves off from the masses.” [quoted by Alexander Rabinowitch, Op. Cit., p. 102]
The anarchists operated with the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution which overthrew the provisional government. But things changed once the authoritarian socialists of the Bolshevik party had seized power. While both anarchists and Bolsheviks used many of the same slogans, there were important differences between the two. As Voline argued, “[f]rom the lips and pens of the Anarchists, those slogans were sincere and concrete, for they corresponded to their principles and called for action entirely in conformity with such principles. But with the Bolsheviks, the same slogans meant practical solutions totally different from those of the libertarians and did not tally with the ideas which the slogans appeared to express.” [The Unknown Revolution, p. 210]
Take, for example, the slogan “All power to the Soviets.” For anarchists it meant exactly that — organs for the working class to run society directly, based on mandated, recallable delegates. For the Bolsheviks, that slogan was simply the means for a Bolshevik government to be formed over and above the soviets. The difference is important, “for the Anarchists declared, if ‘power’ really should belong to the soviets, it could not belong to the Bolshevik party, and if it should belong to that Party, as the Bolsheviks envisaged, it could not belong to the soviets.” [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 213] Reducing the soviets to simply executing the decrees of the central (Bolshevik) government and having their All-Russian Congress be able to recall the government (i.e. those with real power) does not equal “all power,” quite the reverse.
Similarly with the term “workers’ control of production.” Before the October Revolution Lenin saw “workers’ control” purely in terms of the “universal, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists.” [Will the Bolsheviks Maintain Power?, p. 52] He did not see it in terms of workers’ management of production itself (i.e. the abolition of wage labour) via federations of factory committees. Anarchists and the workers’ factory committees did. As S.A. Smith correctly notes, Lenin used “the term [‘workers’ control’] in a very different sense from that of the factory committees.” In fact Lenin’s “proposals . . . [were] thoroughly statist and centralist in character, whereas the practice of the factory committees was essentially local and autonomous.” [Red Petrograd, p. 154] For anarchists, “if the workers’ organisations were capable of exercising effective control [over their bosses], then they also were capable of guaranteeing all production. In such an event, private industry could be eliminated quickly but progressively, and replaced by collective industry. Consequently, the Anarchists rejected the vague nebulous slogan of ‘control of production.’ They advocated expropriation — progressive, but immediate — of private industry by the organisations of collective production.“ [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 221]
Once in power, the Bolsheviks systematically undermined the popular meaning of workers’ control and replaced it with their own, statist conception. “On three occasions,” one historian notes, “in the first months of Soviet power, the [factory] committee leaders sought to bring their model into being. At each point the party leadership overruled them. The result was to vest both managerial and control powers in organs of the state which were subordinate to the central authorities, and formed by them.” [Thomas F. Remington, Building Socialism in Bolshevik Russia, p. 38] This process ultimately resulted in Lenin arguing for, and introducing, “one-man management” armed with “dictatorial” power (with the manager appointed from above by the state) in April 1918. This process is documented in Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, which also indicates the clear links between Bolshevik practice and Bolshevik ideology as well as how both differed from popular activity and ideas.
Hence the comments by Russian Anarchist Peter Arshinov:
“Another no less important peculiarity is that [the] October [revolution of 1917] has two meanings — that which the working’ masses who participated in the social revolution gave it, and with them the Anarchist-Communists, and that which was given it by the political party [the Marxist-Communists] that captured power from this aspiration to social revolution, and which betrayed and stifled all further development. An enormous gulf exists between these two interpretations of October. The October of the workers and peasants is the suppression of the power of the parasite classes in the name of equality and self-management. The Bolshevik October is the conquest of power by the party of the revolutionary intelligentsia, the installation of its ‘State Socialism’ and of its ‘socialist’ methods of governing the masses.” [The Two Octobers]
Initially, anarchists had supported the Bolsheviks, since the Bolshevik leaders had hidden their state-building ideology behind support for the soviets (as socialist historian Samuel Farber notes, the anarchists “had actually been an unnamed coalition partner of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution.” [Before Stalinism, p. 126]). However, this support quickly “withered away” as the Bolsheviks showed that they were, in fact, not seeking true socialism but were instead securing power for themselves and pushing not for collective ownership of land and productive resources but for government ownership. The Bolsheviks, as noted, systematically undermined the workers’ control/self-management movement in favour of capitalist-like forms of workplace management based around “one-man management” armed with “dictatorial powers.”
As regards the soviets, the Bolsheviks systematically undermining what limited independence and democracy they had. In response to the “great Bolshevik losses in the soviet elections” during the spring and summer of 1918 “Bolshevik armed force usually overthrew the results of these provincial elections.” Also, the “government continually postponed the new general elections to the Petrograd Soviet, the term of which had ended in March 1918. Apparently, the government feared that the opposition parties would show gains.” [Samuel Farber, Op. Cit., p. 24 and p. 22] In the Petrograd elections, the Bolsheviks “lost the absolute majority in the soviet they had previously enjoyed” but remained the largest party. However, the results of the Petrograd soviet elections were irrelevant as a “Bolshevik victory was assured by the numerically quite significant representation now given to trade unions, district soviets, factory-shop committees, district workers conferences, and Red Army and naval units, in which the Bolsheviks had overwhelming strength.” [Alexander Rabinowitch, “The Evolution of Local Soviets in Petrograd”, pp. 20-37, Slavic Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, p. 36f] In other words, the Bolsheviks had undermined the democratic nature of the soviet by swamping it by their own delegates. Faced with rejection in the soviets, the Bolsheviks showed that for them “soviet power” equalled party power. To stay in power, the Bolsheviks had to destroy the soviets, which they did. The soviet system remained “soviet” in name only. Indeed, from 1919 onwards Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks were admitting that they had created a party dictatorship and, moreover, that such a dictatorship was essential for any revolution (Trotsky supported party dictatorship even after the rise of Stalinism).
The Red Army, moreover, no longer was a democratic organisation. In March of 1918 Trotsky had abolished the election of officers and soldier committees:
“the principle of election is politically purposeless and technically inexpedient, and it has been, in practice, abolished by decree.” [Work, Discipline, Order]
As Maurice Brinton correctly summarises:
“Trotsky, appointed Commissar of Military Affairs after Brest-Litovsk, had rapidly been reorganising the Red Army. The death penalty for disobedience under fire had been restored. So, more gradually, had saluting, special forms of address, separate living quarters and other privileges for officers. Democratic forms of organisation, including the election of officers, had been quickly dispensed with.” [The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, p. 37]
Unsurprisingly, Samuel Farber notes that “there is no evidence indicating that Lenin or any of the mainstream Bolshevik leaders lamented the loss of workers’ control or of democracy in the soviets, or at least referred to these losses as a retreat, as Lenin declared with the replacement of War Communism by NEP in 1921.” [Before Stalinism, p. 44]
Thus after the October Revolution, anarchists started to denounce the Bolshevik regime and call for a “Third Revolution” which would finally free the masses from all bosses (capitalist or socialist). They exposed the fundamental difference between the rhetoric of Bolshevism (as expressed, for example, in Lenin’s State and Revolution) with its reality. Bolshevism in power had proved Bakunin’s prediction that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would become the “dictatorship over the proletariat” by the leaders of the Communist Party.
The influence of the anarchists started to grow. As Jacques Sadoul (a French officer) noted in early 1918:
“The anarchist party is the most active, the most militant of the opposition groups and probably the most popular . . . The Bolsheviks are anxious.” [quoted by Daniel Guerin, Anarchism, pp. 95-6]
By April 1918, the Bolsheviks began the physical suppression of their anarchist rivals. On April 12th, 1918, the Cheka (the secret police formed by Lenin in December, 1917) attacked anarchist centres in Moscow. Those in other cities were attacked soon after. As well as repressing their most vocal opponents on the left, the Bolsheviks were restricting the freedom of the masses they claimed to be protecting. Democratic soviets, free speech, opposition political parties and groups, self-management in the workplace and on the land — all were destroyed in the name of “socialism.” All this happened, we must stress, before the start of the Civil War in late May, 1918, which most supporters of Leninism blame for the Bolsheviks’ authoritarianism. During the civil war, this process accelerated, with the Bolsheviks’ systematically repressing opposition from all quarters — including the strikes and protests of the very class who they claimed was exercising its “dictatorship” while they were in power!
It is important to stress that this process had started well before the start of the civil war, confirming anarchist theory that a “workers’ state” is a contraction in terms. For anarchists, the Bolshevik substitution of party power for workers power (and the conflict between the two) did not come as a surprise. The state is the delegation of power — as such, it means that the idea of a “workers’ state” expressing “workers’ power” is a logical impossibility. If workers are running society then power rests in their hands. If a state exists then power rests in the hands of the handful of people at the top, not in the hands of all. The state was designed for minority rule. No state can be an organ of working class (i.e. majority) self-management due to its basic nature, structure and design. For this reason anarchists have argued for a bottom-up federation of workers’ councils as the agent of revolution and the means of managing society after capitalism and the state have been abolished.
As we discuss in section H, the degeneration of the Bolsheviks from a popular working class party into dictators over the working class did not occur by accident. A combination of political ideas and the realities of state power (and the social relationships it generates) could not help but result in such a degeneration. The political ideas of Bolshevism, with its vanguardism, fear of spontaneity and identification of party power with working class power inevitably meant that the party would clash with those whom it claimed to represent. After all, if the party is the vanguard then, automatically, everyone else is a “backward” element. This meant that if the working class resisted Bolshevik policies or rejected them in soviet elections, then the working class was “wavering” and being influenced by “petty-bourgeois” and “backward” elements. Vanguardism breeds elitism and, when combined with state power, dictatorship.
State power, as anarchists have always stressed, means the delegation of power into the hands of a few. This automatically produces a class division in society — those with power and those without. As such, once in power the Bolsheviks were isolated from the working class. The Russian Revolution confirmed Malatesta’s argument that a “government, that is a group of people entrusted with making laws and empowered to use the collective power to oblige each individual to obey them, is already a privileged class and cut off from the people. As any constituted body would do, it will instinctively seek to extend its powers, to be beyond public control, to impose its own policies and to give priority to its special interests. Having been put in a privileged position, the government is already at odds with the people whose strength it disposes of.” [Anarchy, p. 34] A highly centralised state such as the Bolsheviks built would reduce accountability to a minimum while at the same time accelerating the isolation of the rulers from the ruled. The masses were no longer a source of inspiration and power, but rather an alien group whose lack of “discipline” (i.e. ability to follow orders) placed the revolution in danger. As one Russian Anarchist argued,
“The proletariat is being gradually enserfed by the state. The people are being transformed into servants over whom there has arisen a new class of administrators — a new class born mainly form the womb of the so-called intelligentsia . . . We do not mean to say . . . that the Bolshevik party set out to create a new class system. But we do say that even the best intentions and aspirations must inevitably be smashed against the evils inherent in any system of centralised power. The separation of management from labour, the division between administrators and workers flows logically from centralisation. It cannot be otherwise.” [The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution, pp. 123-4]
For this reason anarchists, while agreeing that there is an uneven development of political ideas within the working class, reject the idea that “revolutionaries” should take power on behalf of working people. Only when working people actually run society themselves will a revolution be successful. For anarchists, this meant that “[e]ffective emancipation can be achieved only by the direct, widespread, and independent action . . . of the workers themselves, grouped . . . in their own class organisations . . . on the basis of concrete action and self-government, helped but not governed, by revolutionaries working in the very midst of, and not above the mass and the professional, technical, defence and other branches.” [Voline, Op. Cit., p. 197] By substituting party power for workers power, the Russian Revolution had made its first fatal step. Little wonder that the following prediction (from November 1917) made by anarchists in Russia came true:
“Once their power is consolidated and ‘legalised’, the Bolsheviks who are . . . men of centralist and authoritarian action will begin to rearrange the life of the country and of the people by governmental and dictatorial methods, imposed by the centre. The[y] . . . will dictate the will of the party to all Russia, and command the whole nation. Your Soviets and your other local organisations will become little by little, simply executive organs of the will of the central government. In the place of healthy, constructive work by the labouring masses, in place of free unification from the bottom, we will see the installation of an authoritarian and statist apparatus which would act from above and set about wiping out everything that stood in its way with an iron hand.” [quoted by Voline, Op. Cit., p. 235]
The so-called “workers’ state” could not be participatory or empowering for working class people (as the Marxists claimed) simply because state structures are not designed for that. Created as instruments of minority rule, they cannot be transformed into (nor “new” ones created which are) a means of liberation for the working classes. As Kropotkin put it, Anarchists “maintain that the State organisation, having been the force to which minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges.” [Anarchism, p. 170] In the words of an anarchist pamphlet written in 1918:
“Bolshevism, day by day and step by step, proves that state power possesses inalienable characteristics; it can change its label, its ‘theory’, and its servitors, but in essence it merely remains power and despotism in new forms.” [quoted by Paul Avrich, “The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution,” pp. 341-350, Russian Review, vol. 26, issue no. 4, p. 347]
For insiders, the Revolution had died a few months after the Bolsheviks took over. To the outside world, the Bolsheviks and the USSR came to represent “socialism” even as they systematically destroyed the basis of real socialism. By transforming the soviets into state bodies, substituting party power for soviet power, undermining the factory committees, eliminating democracy in the armed forces and workplaces, repressing the political opposition and workers’ protests, the Bolsheviks effectively marginalised the working class from its own revolution. Bolshevik ideology and practice were themselves important and sometimes decisive factors in the degeneration of the revolution and the ultimate rise of Stalinism.
As anarchists had predicted for decades previously, in the space of a few months, and before the start of the Civil War, the Bolshevik’s “workers’ state” had become, like any state, an alien power over the working class and an instrument of minority rule (in this case, the rule of the party). The Civil War accelerated this process and soon party dictatorship was introduced (indeed, leading Bolsheviks began arguing that it was essential in any revolution). The Bolsheviks put down the libertarian socialist elements within their country, with the crushing of the uprising at Kronstadt and the Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine being the final nails in the coffin of socialism and the subjugation of the soviets.
The Kronstadt uprising of February, 1921, was, for anarchists, of immense importance (see the appendix “What was the Kronstadt Rebellion?” for a full discussion of this uprising). The uprising started when the sailors of Kronstadt supported the striking workers of Petrograd in February, 1921. They raised a 15 point resolution, the first point of which was a call for soviet democracy. The Bolsheviks slandered the Kronstadt rebels as counter-revolutionaries and crushed the revolt. For anarchists, this was significant as the repression could not be justified in terms of the Civil War (which had ended months before) and because it was a major uprising of ordinary people for real socialism. As Voline puts it:
“Kronstadt was the first entirely independent attempt of the people to liberate themselves of all yokes and carry out the Social Revolution: this attempt was made directly . . . by the working masses themselves, without political shepherds, without leaders or tutors. It was the first step towards the third and social revolution.” [Voline, Op. Cit., pp. 537-8]
In the Ukraine, anarchist ideas were most successfully applied. In areas under the protection of the Makhnovist movement, working class people organised their own lives directly, based on their own ideas and needs — true social self-determination. Under the leadership of Nestor Makhno, a self-educated peasant, the movement not only fought against both Red and White dictatorships but also resisted the Ukrainian nationalists. In opposition to the call for “national self-determination,” i.e. a new Ukrainian state, Makhno called instead for working class self-determination in the Ukraine and across the world. Makhno inspired his fellow peasants and workers to fight for real freedom:
“Conquer or die — such is the dilemma that faces the Ukrainian peasants and workers at this historic moment . . . But we will not conquer in order to repeat the errors of the past years, the error of putting our fate into the hands of new masters; we will conquer in order to take our destinies into our own hands, to conduct our lives according to our own will and our own conception of the truth.” [quoted by Peter Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 58]
To ensure this end, the Makhnovists refused to set up governments in the towns and cities they liberated, instead urging the creation of free soviets so that the working people could govern themselves. Taking the example of Aleksandrovsk, once they had liberated the city the Makhnovists “immediately invited the working population to participate in a general conference . . . it was proposed that the workers organise the life of the city and the functioning of the factories with their own forces and their own organisations . . . The first conference was followed by a second. The problems of organising life according to principles of self-management by workers were examined and discussed with animation by the masses of workers, who all welcomed this ideas with the greatest enthusiasm . . . Railroad workers took the first step . . . They formed a committee charged with organising the railway network of the region . . . From this point, the proletariat of Aleksandrovsk began to turn systematically to the problem of creating organs of self-management.” [Op. Cit., p. 149]
The Makhnovists argued that the “freedom of the workers and peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants themselves to act, to organise themselves, to agree among themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they see fit and desire . . . The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel . . . In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern.” [Peter Arshinov, quoted by Guerin, Op. Cit., p. 99] In Alexandrovsk, the Bolsheviks proposed to the Makhnovists spheres of action – their Revkom (Revolutionary Committee) would handle political affairs and the Makhnovists military ones. Makhno advised them “to go and take up some honest trade instead of seeking to impose their will on the workers.” [Peter Arshinov in The Anarchist Reader, p. 141]
They also organised free agricultural communes which “[a]dmittedly . . . were not numerous, and included only a minority of the population . . . But what was most precious was that these communes were formed by the poor peasants themselves. The Makhnovists never exerted any pressure on the peasants, confining themselves to propagating the idea of free communes.” [Arshinov, History of the Makhnovist Movement, p. 87] Makhno played an important role in abolishing the holdings of the landed gentry. The local soviet and their district and regional congresses equalised the use of the land between all sections of the peasant community. [Op. Cit., pp. 53-4]
Moreover, the Makhnovists took the time and energy to involve the whole population in discussing the development of the revolution, the activities of the army and social policy. They organised numerous conferences of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ delegates to discuss political and social issues as well as free soviets, unions and communes. They organised a regional congress of peasants and workers when they had liberated Aleksandrovsk. When the Makhnovists tried to convene the third regional congress of peasants, workers and insurgents in April 1919 and an extraordinary congress of several regions in June 1919 the Bolsheviks viewed them as counter-revolutionary, tried to ban them and declared their organisers and delegates outside the law.
The Makhnovists replied by holding the conferences anyway and asking “[c]an there exist laws made by a few people who call themselves revolutionaries, which permit them to outlaw a whole people who are more revolutionary than they are themselves?” and “[w]hose interests should the revolution defend: those of the Party or those of the people who set the revolution in motion with their blood?” Makhno himself stated that he “consider[ed] it an inviolable right of the workers and peasants, a right won by the revolution, to call conferences on their own account, to discuss their affairs.” [Op. Cit., p. 103 and p. 129]
In addition, the Makhnovists “fully applied the revolutionary principles of freedom of speech, of thought, of the press, and of political association. In all cities and towns occupied by the Makhnovists, they began by lifting all the prohibitions and repealing all the restrictions imposed on the press and on political organisations by one or another power.” Indeed, the “only restriction that the Makhnovists considered necessary to impose on the Bolsheviks, the left Socialist-Revolutionaries and other statists was a prohibition on the formation of those ‘revolutionary committees’ which sought to impose a dictatorship over the people.” [Op. Cit., p. 153 and p. 154]
The Makhnovists rejected the Bolshevik corruption of the soviets and instead proposed “the free and completely independent soviet system of working people without authorities and their arbitrary laws.” Their proclamations stated that the “working people themselves must freely choose their own soviets, which carry out the will and desires of the working people themselves, that is to say. ADMINISTRATIVE, not ruling soviets.” Economically, capitalism would be abolished along with the state – the land and workshops “must belong to the working people themselves, to those who work in them, that is to say, they must be socialised.” [Op. Cit., p. 271 and p. 273]
The army itself, in stark contrast to the Red Army, was fundamentally democratic (although, of course, the horrific nature of the civil war did result in a few deviations from the ideal — however, compared to the regime imposed on the Red Army by Trotsky, the Makhnovists were much more democratic movement).
The anarchist experiment of self-management in the Ukraine came to a bloody end when the Bolsheviks turned on the Makhnovists (their former allies against the “Whites,” or pro-Tsarists) when they were no longer needed. This important movement is fully discussed in the appendix “Why does the Makhnovist movement show there is an alternative to Bolshevism?” of our FAQ. However, we must stress here the one obvious lesson of the Makhnovist movement, namely that the dictatorial policies pursued by the Bolsheviks were not imposed on them by objective circumstances. Rather, the political ideas of Bolshevism had a clear influence in the decisions they made. After all, the Makhnovists were active in the same Civil War and yet did not pursue the same policies of party power as the Bolsheviks did. Rather, they successfully encouraged working class freedom, democracy and power in extremely difficult circumstances (and in the face of strong Bolshevik opposition to those policies). The received wisdom on the left is that there was no alternative open to the Bolsheviks. The experience of the Makhnovists disproves this. What the masses of people, as well as those in power, do and think politically is as much part of the process determining the outcome of history as are the objective obstacles that limit the choices available. Clearly, ideas do matter and, as such, the Makhnovists show that there was (and is) a practical alternative to Bolshevism — anarchism.
The last anarchist march in Moscow until 1987 took place at the funeral of Kropotkin in 1921, when over 10,000 marched behind his coffin. They carried black banners declaring “Where there is authority, there is no freedom” and “The Liberation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.” As the procession passed the Butyrki prison, the inmates sang anarchist songs and shook the bars of their cells.
Anarchist opposition within Russia to the Bolshevik regime started in 1918. They were the first left-wing group to be repressed by the new “revolutionary” regime. Outside of Russia, anarchists continued to support the Bolsheviks until news came from anarchist sources about the repressive nature of the Bolshevik regime (until then, many had discounted negative reports as being from pro-capitalist sources). Once these reliable reports came in, anarchists across the globe rejected Bolshevism and its system of party power and repression. The experience of Bolshevism confirmed Bakunin’s prediction that Marxism meant “the highly despotic government of the masses by a new and very small aristocracy of real or pretended scholars. The people are not learned, so they will be liberated from the cares of government and included in entirety in the governed herd.” [Statism and Anarchy, pp. 178-9]
From about 1921 on, anarchists outside of Russia started describing the USSR as a “state-capitalist” nation to indicate that although individual bosses might have been eliminated, the Soviet state bureaucracy played the same role as individual bosses do in the West (anarchists within Russia had been calling it that since 1918). For anarchists, “the Russian revolution . . . is trying to reach . . . economic equality . . . this effort has been made in Russia under a strongly centralised party dictatorship . . . this effort to build a communist republic on the basis of a strongly centralised state communism under the iron law of a party dictatorship is bound to end in failure. We are learning to know in Russia how not to introduce communism.” [Anarchism, p. 254]
For more information on the Russian Revolution and the role played by anarchists, see the appendix on “The Russian Revolution” of the FAQ. As well as covering the Kronstadt uprising and the Makhnovists, it discusses why the revolution failed, the role of Bolshevik ideology played in that failure and whether there were any alternatives to Bolshevism.
The following books are also recommended: The Unknown Revolution by Voline; The Guillotine at Work by G.P. Maximov; The Bolshevik Myth and The Russian Tragedy, both by Alexander Berkman; The Bolsheviks and Workers Control by M. Brinton; The Kronstadt Uprising by Ida Mett; The History of the Makhnovist Movement by Peter Arshinov; My Disillusionment in Russia and Living My Life by Emma Goldman.
Many of these books were written by anarchists active during the revolution, many imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and deported to the West due to international pressure exerted by anarcho-syndicalist delegates to Moscow who the Bolsheviks were trying to win over to Leninism. The majority of such delegates stayed true to their libertarian politics and convinced their unions to reject Bolshevism and break with Moscow. By the early 1920’s all the anarcho-syndicalist union confederations had joined with the anarchists in rejecting the “socialism” in Russia as state capitalism and party dictatorship.
After the end of the First World War there was a massive radicalisation across Europe and the world. Union membership exploded, with strikes, demonstrations and agitation reaching massive levels. This was partly due to the war, partly to the apparent success of the Russian Revolution. This enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution even reached Individualist Anarchists like Joseph Labadie, who like many other anti-capitalists, saw “the red in the east [giving] hope of a brighter day” and the Bolsheviks as making “laudable efforts to at least try some way out of the hell of industrial slavery.” [quoted by Carlotta R. Anderson, All-American Anarchist p. 225 and p. 241]
Across Europe, anarchist ideas became more popular and anarcho-syndicalist unions grew in size. For example, in Britain, the ferment produced the shop stewards’ movement and the strikes on Clydeside; Germany saw the rise of IWW inspired industrial unionism and a libertarian form of Marxism called “Council Communism”; Spain saw a massive growth in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. In addition, it also, unfortunately, saw the rise and growth of both social democratic and communist parties. Italy was no exception.
In Turin, a new rank-and-file movement was developing. This movement was based around the “internal commissions” (elected ad hoc grievance committees). These new organisations were based directly on the group of people who worked together in a particular work shop, with a mandated and recallable shop steward elected for each group of 15 to 20 or so workers. The assembly of all the shop stewards in a given plant then elected the “internal commission” for that facility, which was directly and constantly responsible to the body of shop stewards, which was called the “factory council.”
Between November 1918 and March 1919, the internal commissions had become a national issue within the trade union movement. On February 20, 1919, the Italian Federation of Metal Workers (FIOM) won a contract providing for the election of “internal commissions” in the factories. The workers subsequently tried to transform these organs of workers’ representation into factory councils with a managerial function. By May Day 1919, the internal commissions “were becoming the dominant force within the metalworking industry and the unions were in danger of becoming marginal administrative units. Behind these alarming developments, in the eyes of reformists, lay the libertarians.” [Carl Levy, Gramsci and the Anarchists, p. 135] By November 1919 the internal commissions of Turin were transformed into factory councils.
The movement in Turin is usually associated with the weekly L’Ordine Nuovo (The New Order), which first appeared on May 1, 1919. As Daniel Guerin summarises, it was “edited by a left socialist, Antonio Gramsci, assisted by a professor of philosophy at Turin University with anarchist ideas, writing under the pseudonym of Carlo Petri, and also of a whole nucleus of Turin libertarians. In the factories, the Ordine Nuovo group was supported by a number of people, especially the anarcho-syndicalist militants of the metal trades, Pietro Ferrero and Maurizio Garino. The manifesto of Ordine Nuovo was signed by socialists and libertarians together, agreeing to regard the factory councils as ‘organs suited to future communist management of both the individual factory and the whole society.'” [Anarchism, p. 109]
The developments in Turin should not be taken in isolation. All across Italy, workers and peasants were taking action. In late February 1920, a rash of factory occupations broke out in Liguria, Piedmont and Naples. In Liguria, the workers occupied the metal and shipbuilding plants in Sestri Ponente, Cornigliano and Campi after a breakdown of pay talks. For up to four days, under syndicalist leadership, they ran the plants through factory councils.
During this period the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) grew in size to around 800 000 members and the influence of the Italian Anarchist Union (UAI) with its 20 000 members and daily paper (Umanita Nova) grew correspondingly. As the Welsh Marxist historian Gwyn A. Williams points out “Anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists were the most consistently and totally revolutionary group on the left . . . the most obvious feature of the history of syndicalism and anarchism in 1919-20: rapid and virtually continuous growth . . . The syndicalists above all captured militant working-class opinion which the socialist movement was utterly failing to capture.” [Proletarian Order, pp. 194-195] In Turin, libertarians “worked within FIOM” and had been “heavily involved in the Ordine Nuovo campaign from the beginning.” [Op. Cit., p. 195] Unsurprisingly, Ordone Nuovo was denounced as “syndicalist” by other socialists.
It was the anarchists and syndicalists who first raised the idea of occupying workplaces. Malatesta was discussing this idea in Umanita Nova in March, 1920. In his words, “General strikes of protest no longer upset anyone . . . One must seek something else. We put forward an idea: take-over of factories. . . the method certainly has a future, because it corresponds to the ultimate ends of the workers’ movement and constitutes an exercise preparing one for the ultimate act of expropriation.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 134] In the same month, during “a strong syndicalist campaign to establish councils in Mila, Armando Borghi [anarchist secretary of the USI] called for mass factory occupations. In Turin, the re-election of workshop commissars was just ending in a two-week orgy of passionate discussion and workers caught the fever. [Factory Council] Commissars began to call for occupations.” Indeed, “the council movement outside Turin was essentially anarcho-syndicalist.” Unsurprisingly, the secretary of the syndicalist metal-workers “urged support for the Turin councils because they represented anti-bureaucratic direct action, aimed at control of the factory and could be the first cells of syndicalist industrial unions . . . The syndicalist congress voted to support the councils. . . . Malatesta . . . supported them as a form of direct action guaranteed to generate rebelliousness . . . Umanita Nova and Guerra di Classe [paper of the USI] became almost as committed to the councils as L’Ordine Nuovo and the Turin edition of Avanti.“ [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 200, p. 193 and p. 196]
The upsurge in militancy soon provoked an employer counter-offensive. The bosses organisation denounced the factory councils and called for a mobilisation against them. Workers were rebelling and refusing to follow the bosses orders — “indiscipline” was rising in the factories. They won state support for the enforcement of the existing industrial regulations. The national contract won by the FIOM in 1919 had provided that the internal commissions were banned from the shop floor and restricted to non-working hours. This meant that the activities of the shop stewards’ movement in Turin — such as stopping work to hold shop steward elections — were in violation of the contract. The movement was essentially being maintained through mass insubordination. The bosses used this infringement of the agreed contract as the means combating the factory councils in Turin.
The showdown with the employers arrived in April, when a general assembly of shop stewards at Fiat called for sit-in strikes to protest the dismissal of several shop stewards. In response the employers declared a general lockout. The government supported the lockout with a mass show of force and troops occupied the factories and mounted machine guns posts at them. When the shop stewards movement decided to surrender on the immediate issues in dispute after two weeks on strike, the employers responded with demands that the shop stewards councils be limited to non-working hours, in accordance with the FIOM national contract, and that managerial control be re-imposed.
These demands were aimed at the heart of the factory council system and Turin labour movement responded with a massive general strike in defence of it. In Turin, the strike was total and it soon spread throughout the region of Piedmont and involved 500 000 workers at its height. The Turin strikers called for the strike to be extended nationally and, being mostly led by socialists, they turned to the CGL trade union and Socialist Party leaders, who rejected their call.
The only support for the Turin general strike came from unions that were mainly under anarcho-syndicalist influence, such as the independent railway and the maritime workers unions (“The syndicalists were the only ones to move.”). The railway workers in Pisa and Florence refused to transport troops who were being sent to Turin. There were strikes all around Genoa, among dock workers and in workplaces where the USI was a major influence. So in spite of being “betrayed and abandoned by the whole socialist movement,” the April movement “still found popular support” with “actions . . . either directly led or indirectly inspired by anarcho-syndicalists.” In Turin itself, the anarchists and syndicalists were “threatening to cut the council movement out from under” Gramsci and the Ordine Nuovo group. [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 207, p. 193 and p. 194]
Eventually the CGL leadership settled the strike on terms that accepted the employers’ main demand for limiting the shop stewards’ councils to non-working hours. Though the councils were now much reduced in activity and shop floor presence, they would yet see a resurgence of their position during the September factory occupations.
The anarchists “accused the socialists of betrayal. They criticised what they believed was a false sense of discipline that had bound socialists to their own cowardly leadership. They contrasted the discipline that placed every movement under the ‘calculations, fears, mistakes and possible betrayals of the leaders’ to the other discipline of the workers of Sestri Ponente who struck in solidarity with Turin, the discipline of the railway workers who refused to transport security forces to Turin and the anarchists and members of the Unione Sindacale who forgot considerations of party and sect to put themselves at the disposition of the Torinesi.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., p. 161] Sadly, this top-down “discipline” of the socialists and their unions would be repeated during the factory occupations, with terrible results.
In September, 1920, there were large-scale stay-in strikes in Italy in response to an owner wage cut and lockout. “Central to the climate of the crisis was the rise of the syndicalists.” In mid-August, the USI metal-workers “called for both unions to occupy the factories” and called for “a preventive occupation” against lock-outs. The USI saw this as the “expropriation of the factories by the metal-workers” (which must “be defended by all necessary measures”) and saw the need “to call the workers of other industries into battle.” [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 236, pp. 238-9] Indeed, “[i]f the FIOM had not embraced the syndicalist idea of an occupation of factories to counter an employer’s lockout, the USI may well have won significant support from the politically active working class of Turin.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., p. 129] These strikes began in the engineering factories and soon spread to railways, road transport, and other industries, with peasants seizing land. The strikers, however, did more than just occupy their workplaces, they placed them under workers’ self-management. Soon over 500 000 “strikers” were at work, producing for themselves. Errico Malatesta, who took part in these events, writes:
“The metal workers started the movement over wage rates. It was a strike of a new kind. Instead of abandoning the factories, the idea was to remain inside without working . . . Throughout Italy there was a revolutionary fervour among the workers and soon the demands changed their characters. Workers thought that the moment was ripe to take possession once [and] for all the means of production. They armed for defence . . . and began to organise production on their own . . . It was the right of property abolished in fact . . .; it was a new regime, a new form of social life that was being ushered in. And the government stood by because it felt impotent to offer opposition.” [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 134]
Daniel Guerin provides a good summary of the extent of the movement:
“The management of the factories . . . [was] conducted by technical and administrative workers’ committees. Self-management went quite a long way: in the early period assistance was obtained from the banks, but when it was withdrawn the self-management system issued its own money to pay the workers’ wages. Very strict self-discipline was required, the use of alcoholic beverages forbidden, and armed patrols were organised for self-defence. Very close solidarity was established between the factories under self-management. Ores and coal were put into a common pool, and shared out equitably.” [Anarchism, p. 109]
Italy was “paralysed, with half a million workers occupying their factories and raising red and black flags over them.” The movement spread throughout Italy, not only in the industrial heartland around Milan, Turin and Genoa, but also in Rome, Florence, Naples and Palermo. The “militants of the USI were certainly in the forefront of the movement,” while Umanita Nova argued that “the movement is very serious and we must do everything we can to channel it towards a massive extension.” The persistent call of the USI was for “an extension of the movement to the whole of industry to institute their ‘expropriating general strike.'” [Williams, Op. Cit., p. 236 and pp. 243-4] Railway workers, influenced by the libertarians, refused to transport troops, workers went on strike against the orders of the reformist unions and peasants occupied the land. The anarchists whole-heartedly supported the movement, unsurprisingly as the “occupation of the factories and the land suited perfectly our programme of action.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 135] Luigi Fabbri described the occupations as having “revealed a power in the proletariat of which it had been unaware hitherto.” [quoted by Paolo Sprinao, The Occupation of the Factories, p. 134]
However, after four weeks of occupation, the workers decided to leave the factories. This was because of the actions of the socialist party and the reformist trade unions. They opposed the movement and negotiated with the state for a return to “normality” in exchange for a promise to extend workers’ control legally, in association with the bosses. The question of revolution was decided by a vote of the CGL national council in Milan on April 10-11th, without consulting the syndicalist unions, after the Socialist Party leadership refused to decide one way or the other.
Needless to say, this promise of “workers’ control” was not kept. The lack of independent inter-factory organisation made workers dependent on trade union bureaucrats for information on what was going on in other cities, and they used that power to isolate factories, cities, and factories from each other. This lead to a return to work, “in spite of the opposition of individual anarchists dispersed among the factories.” [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 136] The local syndicalist union confederations could not provide the necessary framework for a fully co-ordinated occupation movement as the reformist unions refused to work with them; and although the anarchists were a large minority, they were still a minority:
“At the ‘interproletarian’ convention held on 12 September (in which the Unione Anarchia, the railwaymen’s and maritime workers union participated) the syndicalist union decided that ‘we cannot do it ourselves’ without the socialist party and the CGL, protested against the ‘counter-revolutionary vote’ of Milan, declared it minoritarian, arbitrary and null, and ended by launching new, vague, but ardent calls to action.” [Paolo Spriano, Op. Cit., p. 94]
Malatesta addressed the workers of one of the factories at Milan. He argued that “[t]hose who celebrate the agreement signed at Rome [between the Confederazione and the capitalists] as a great victory of yours are deceiving you. The victory in reality belongs to Giolitti, to the government and the bourgeoisie who are saved from the precipice over which they were hanging.” During the occupation the “bourgeoisie trembled, the government was powerless to face the situation.” Therefore:
“To speak of victory when the Roman agreement throws you back under bourgeois exploitation which you could have got rid of is a lie. If you give up the factories, do this with the conviction [of] hav[ing] lost a great battle and with the firm intention to resume the struggle on the first occasion and to carry it on in a thorough way. . . Nothing is lost if you have no illusion [about] the deceiving character of the victory. The famous decree on the control of factories is a mockery . . . because it tends to harmonise your interests and those of the bourgeois which is like harmonising the interests of the wolf and the sheep. Don’t believe those of your leaders who make fools of you by adjourning the revolution from day to day. You yourselves must make the revolution when an occasion will offer itself, without waiting for orders which never come, or which come only to enjoin you to abandon action. Have confidence in yourselves, have faith in your future and you will win.” [quoted by Max Nettlau, Errico Malatesta: The Biography of an Anarchist]
Malatesta was proven correct. With the end of the occupations, the only victors were the bourgeoisie and the government. Soon the workers would face Fascism, but first, in October 1920, “after the factories were evacuated,” the government (obviously knowing who the real threat was) “arrested the entire leadership of the USI and UAI. The socialists did not respond” and “more-or-less ignored the persecution of the libertarians until the spring of 1921 when the aged Malatesta and other imprisoned anarchists mounted a hunger strike from their cells in Milan.” [Carl Levy, Op. Cit., pp. 221-2] They were acquitted after a four day trial.
The events of 1920 show four things. Firstly, that workers can manage their own workplaces successfully by themselves, without bosses. Secondly, on the need for anarchists to be involved in the labour movement. Without the support of the USI, the Turin movement would have been even more isolated than it was. Thirdly, anarchists need to be organised to influence the class struggle. The growth of the UAI and USI in terms of both influence and size indicates the importance of this. Without the anarchists and syndicalists raising the idea of factory occupations and supporting the movement, it is doubtful that it would have been as successful and widespread as it was. Lastly, that socialist organisations, structured in a hierarchical fashion, do not produce a revolutionary membership. By continually looking to leaders, the movement was crippled and could not develop to its full potential.
This period of Italian history explains the growth of Fascism in Italy. As Tobias Abse points out, “the rise of fascism in Italy cannot be detached from the events of the biennio rosso, the two red years of 1919 and 1920, that preceded it. Fascism was a preventive counter-revolution . . . launched as a result of the failed revolution” [“The Rise of Fascism in an Industrial City”, p. 54, in Rethinking Italian Fascism, David Forgacs (ed.), pp. 52-81] The term “preventive counter-revolution” was originally coined by the leading anarchist Luigi Fabbri.
As Malatesta argued at the time of the factory occupations, “[i]f we do not carry on to the end, we will pay with tears of blood for the fear we now instil in the bourgeoisie.” [quoted by Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 66] Later events proved him right, as the capitalists and rich landowners backed the fascists in order to teach the working class their place. In the words of Tobias Abse:
“The aims of the Fascists and their backers amongst the industrialists and agrarians in 1921-22 were simple: to break the power of the organised workers and peasants as completely as possible, to wipe out, with the bullet and the club, not only the gains of the biennio rosso, but everything that the lower classes had gained . . . between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War.” [Op. Cit., p. 54]
The fascist squads attacked and destroyed anarchist and socialist meeting places, social centres, radical presses and Camera del Lavoro (local trade union councils). However, even in the dark days of fascist terror, the anarchists resisted the forces of totalitarianism. “It is no coincidence that the strongest working-class resistance to Fascism was in . . . towns or cities in which there was quite a strong anarchist, syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition.” [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 56]
The anarchists participated in, and often organised sections of, the Arditi del Popolo, a working-class organisation devoted to the self-defence of workers’ interests. The Arditi del Popolo organised and encouraged working-class resistance to fascist squads, often defeating larger fascist forces (for example, “the total humiliation of thousands of Italo Balbo’s squadristi by a couple of hundred Arditi del Popolo backed by the inhabitants of the working class districts” in the anarchist stronghold of Parma in August 1922 [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 56]).
The Arditi del Popolo was the closest Italy got to the idea of a united, revolutionary working-class front against fascism, as had been suggested by Malatesta and the UAI. This movement “developed along anti-bourgeois and anti-fascist lines, and was marked by the independence of its local sections.” [Red Years, Black Years: Anarchist Resistance to Fascism in Italy, p. 2] Rather than being just an “anti-fascist” organisation, the Arditi “were not a movement in defence of ‘democracy’ in the abstract, but an essentially working-class organisation devoted to the defence of the interests of industrial workers, the dockers and large numbers of artisans and craftsmen.” [Tobias Abse, Op. Cit., p. 75] Unsurprisingly, the Arditi del Popolo “appear to have been strongest and most successful in areas where traditional working-class political culture was less exclusively socialist and had strong anarchist or syndicalist traditions, for example, Bari, Livorno, Parma and Rome.” [Antonio Sonnessa, “Working Class Defence Organisation, Anri-Fascist Resistances and the Arditi del Popolo in Turin, 1919-22,” pp. 183-218, European History Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2, p. 184]
However, both the socialist and communist parties withdrew from the organisation. The socialists signed a “Pact of Pacification” with the Fascists in August 1921. The communists “preferred to withdraw their members from the Arditi del Popolo rather than let them work with the anarchists.” [Red Years, Black Years, p. 17] Indeed, “[o]n the same day as the Pact was signed, Ordine Nuovo published a PCd’I [Communist Party of Italy] communication warning communists against involvement” in the Arditi del Popolo. Four days later, the Communist leadership “officially abandoned the movement. Severe disciplinary measures were threatened against those communists who continued to participate in, or liase with,” the organisation. Thus by “the end of the first week of August 1921 the PSI, CGL and the PCd’I had officially denounced” the organisation. “Only the anarchist leaders, if not always sympathetic to the programme of the [Arditi del Popolo], did not abandon the movement.” Indeed, Umanita Nova “strongly supported” it “on the grounds it represented a popular expression of anti-fascist resistance and in defence of freedom to organise.” [Antonio Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 195 and p. 194]
However, in spite of the decisions by their leaders, many rank and file socialists and communists took part in the movement. The latter took part in open “defiance of the PCd’I leadership’s growing abandonment” of it. In Turin, for example, communists who took part in the Arditi del Polopo did so “less as communists and more as part of a wider, working-class self-identification . . . This dynamic was re-enforced by an important socialist and anarchist presence” there. The failure of the Communist leadership to support the movement shows the bankruptcy of Bolshevik organisational forms which were unresponsive to the needs of the popular movement. Indeed, these events show the “libertarian custom of autonomy from, and resistance to, authority was also operated against the leaders of the workers’ movement, particularly when they were held to have misunderstood the situation at grass roots level.” [Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 200, p. 198 and p. 193]
Thus the Communist Party failed to support the popular resistance to fascism. The Communist leader Antonio Gramsci explained why, arguing that “the party leadership’s attitude on the question of the Arditi del Popolo . . . corresponded to a need to prevent the party members from being controlled by a leadership that was not the party’s leadership.” Gramsci added that this policy “served to disqualify a mass movement which had started from below and which could instead have been exploited by us politically.” [Selections from Political Writings (1921-1926), p. 333] While being less sectarian towards the Arditi del Popolo than other Communist leaders, “[i]n common with all communist leaders, Gramsci awaited the formation of the PCd’I-led military squads.” [Sonnessa, Op. Cit., p. 196] In other words, the struggle against fascism was seen by the Communist leadership as a means of gaining more members and, when the opposite was a possibility, they preferred defeat and fascism rather than risk their followers becoming influenced by anarchism.
As Abse notes, “it was the withdrawal of support by the Socialist and Communist parties at the national level that crippled” the Arditi. [Op. Cit., p. 74] Thus “social reformist defeatism and communist sectarianism made impossible an armed opposition that was widespread and therefore effective; and the isolated instances of popular resistance were unable to unite in a successful strategy.” And fascism could have been defeated: “Insurrections at Sarzanna, in July 1921, and at Parma, in August 1922, are examples of the correctness of the policies which the anarchists urged in action and propaganda.” [Red Years, Black Years, p. 3 and p. 2] Historian Tobias Abse confirms this analysis, arguing that “[w]hat happened in Parma in August 1922 . . . could have happened elsewhere, if only the leadership of the Socialist and Communist parties thrown their weight behind the call of the anarchist Malatesta for a united revolutionary front against Fascism.” [Op. Cit., p. 56]
In the end, fascist violence was successful and capitalist power maintained:
“The anarchists’ will and courage were not enough to counter the fascist gangs, powerfully aided with material and arms, backed by the repressive organs of the state. Anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists were decisive in some areas and in some industries, but only a similar choice of direct action on the parts of the Socialist Party and the General Confederation of Labour [the reformist trade union] could have halted fascism.” [Red Years, Black Years, pp. 1-2]
After helping to defeat the revolution, the Marxists helped ensure the victory of fascism.
Even after the fascist state was created, anarchists resisted both inside and outside Italy. Many Italians, both anarchist and non-anarchist, travelled to Spain to resist Franco in 1936 (see Umberto Marzochhi’s Remembering Spain: Italian Anarchist Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War for details). During the Second World War, anarchists played a major part in the Italian Partisan movement. It was the fact that the anti-fascist movement was dominated by anti-capitalist elements that led the USA and the UK to place known fascists in governmental positions in the places they “liberated” (often where the town had already been taken by the Partisans, resulting in the Allied troops “liberating” the town from its own inhabitants!).
Given this history of resisting fascism in Italy, it is surprising that some claim Italian fascism was a product or form of syndicalism. This is even claimed by some anarchists. According to Bob Black the “Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism” and references David D. Roberts 1979 study The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism to support his claim. [Anarchy after Leftism, p. 64] Peter Sabatini in a review in Social Anarchism makes a similar statement, saying that syndicalism’s “ultimate failure” was “its transformation into a vehicle of fascism.” [Social Anarchism, no. 23, p. 99] What is the truth behind these claims?
Looking at Black’s reference we discover that, in fact, most of the Italian syndicalists did not go over to fascism, if by syndicalists we mean members of the USI (the Italian Syndicalist Union). Roberts states that:
“The vast majority of the organised workers failed to respond to the syndicalists’ appeals and continued to oppose [Italian] intervention [in the First World War], shunning what seemed to be a futile capitalist war. The syndicalists failed to convince even a majority within the USI . . . the majority opted for the neutralism of Armando Borghi, leader of the anarchists within the USI. Schism followed as De Ambris led the interventionist minority out of the confederation.” [The Syndicalist Tradition and Italian Fascism, p. 113]
However, if we take “syndicalist” to mean some of the intellectuals and “leaders” of the pre-war movement, it was a case that the “leading syndicalists came out for intervention quickly and almost unanimously” [Roberts, Op. Cit., p. 106] after the First World War started. Many of these pro-war “leading syndicalists” did become fascists. However, to concentrate on a handful of “leaders” (which the majority did not even follow!) and state that this shows that the “Italian syndicalists mostly went over to Fascism” staggers belief. What is even worse, as seen above, the Italian anarchists and syndicalists were the most dedicated and successful fighters against fascism. In effect, Black and Sabatini have slandered a whole movement.
What is also interesting is that these “leading syndicalists” were not anarchists and so not anarcho-syndicalists. As Roberts notes “[i]n Italy, the syndicalist doctrine was more clearly the product of a group of intellectuals, operating within the Socialist party and seeking an alternative to reformism.” They “explicitly denounced anarchism” and “insisted on a variety of Marxist orthodoxy.” The “syndicalists genuinely desired — and tried — to work within the Marxist tradition.” [Op. Cit., p. 66, p. 72, p. 57 and p. 79] According to Carl Levy, in his account of Italian anarchism, “[u]nlike other syndicalist movements, the Italian variation coalesced inside a Second International party. Supporter were partially drawn from socialist intransigents . . . the southern syndicalist intellectuals pronounced republicanism . . . Another component . . . was the remnant of the Partito Operaio.” [“Italian Anarchism: 1870-1926” in For Anarchism: History, Theory, and Practice, David Goodway (Ed.), p. 51]
In other words, the Italian syndicalists who turned to fascism were, firstly, a small minority of intellectuals who could not convince the majority within the syndicalist union to follow them, and, secondly, Marxists and republicans rather than anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists or even revolutionary syndicalists.
According to Carl Levy, Roberts’ book “concentrates on the syndicalist intelligentsia” and that “some syndicalist intellectuals . . . helped generate, or sympathetically endorsed, the new Nationalist movement . . . which bore similarities to the populist and republican rhetoric of the southern syndicalist intellectuals.” He argues that there “has been far too much emphasis on syndicalist intellectuals and national organisers” and that syndicalism “relied little on its national leadership for its long-term vitality.” [Op. Cit., p. 77, p. 53 and p. 51] If we do look at the membership of the USI, rather than finding a group which “mostly went over to fascism,” we discover a group of people who fought fascism tooth and nail and were subject to extensive fascist violence.
To summarise, Italian Fascism had nothing to do with syndicalism and, as seen above, the USI fought the Fascists and was destroyed by them along with the UAI, Socialist Party and other radicals. That a handful of pre-war Marxist-syndicalists later became Fascists and called for a “National-Syndicalism” does not mean that syndicalism and fascism are related (any more than some anarchists later becoming Marxists makes anarchism “a vehicle” for Marxism!).
It is hardly surprising that anarchists were the most consistent and successful opponents of Fascism. The two movements could not be further apart, one standing for total statism in the service of capitalism while the other for a free, non-capitalist society. Neither is it surprising that when their privileges and power were in danger, the capitalists and the landowners turned to fascism to save them. This process is a common feature in history (to list just four examples, Italy, Germany, Spain and Chile).
As Noam Chomsky notes, “a good example of a really large-scale anarchist revolution — in fact the best example to my knowledge — is the Spanish revolution in 1936, in which over most of Republican Spain there was a quite inspiring anarchist revolution that involved both industry and agriculture over substantial areas . . . And that again was, by both human measures and indeed anyone’s economic measures, quite successful. That is, production continued effectively; workers in farms and factories proved quite capable of managing their affairs without coercion from above, contrary to what lots of socialists, communists, liberals and other wanted to believe.” The revolution of 1936 was “based on three generations of experiment and thought and work which extended anarchist ideas to very large parts of the population.” [Radical Priorities, p. 212]
Due to this anarchist organising and agitation, Spain in the 1930’s had the largest anarchist movement in the world. At the start of the Spanish “Civil” war, over one and one half million workers and peasants were members of the CNT (the National Confederation of Labour), an anarcho-syndicalist union federation, and 30,000 were members of the FAI (the Anarchist Federation of Iberia). The total population of Spain at this time was 24 million.
The social revolution which met the Fascist coup on July 18th, 1936, is the greatest experiment in libertarian socialism to date. Here the last mass syndicalist union, the CNT, not only held off the fascist rising but encouraged the widespread take-over of land and factories. Over seven million people, including about two million CNT members, put self-management into practise in the most difficult of circumstances and actually improved both working conditions and output.
In the heady days after the 19th of July, the initiative and power truly rested in the hands of the rank-and-file members of the CNT and FAI. It was ordinary people, undoubtedly under the influence of Faistas (members of the FAI) and CNT militants, who, after defeating the fascist uprising, got production, distribution and consumption started again (under more egalitarian arrangements, of course), as well as organising and volunteering (in their tens of thousands) to join the militias, which were to be sent to free those parts of Spain that were under Franco. In every possible way the working class of Spain were creating by their own actions a new world based on their own ideas of social justice and freedom — ideas inspired, of course, by anarchism and anarchosyndicalism.
George Orwell’s eye-witness account of revolutionary Barcelona in late December, 1936, gives a vivid picture of the social transformation that had begun:
“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workman. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivised and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Seøor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. . . Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” [Homage to Catalonia, pp. 2-3]
The full extent of this historic revolution cannot be covered here. It will be discussed in more detail in Section I.8 of the FAQ. All that can be done is to highlight a few points of special interest in the hope that these will give some indication of the importance of these events and encourage people to find out more about it.
All industry in Catalonia was placed either under workers’ self-management or workers’ control (that is, either totally taking over all aspects of management, in the first case, or, in the second, controlling the old management). In some cases, whole town and regional economies were transformed into federations of collectives. The example of the Railway Federation (which was set up to manage the railway lines in Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia) can be given as a typical example. The base of the federation was the local assemblies:
“All the workers of each locality would meet twice a week to examine all that pertained to the work to be done… The local general assembly named a committee to manage the general activity in each station and its annexes. At [these] meetings, the decisions (direccion) of this committee, whose members continued to work [at their previous jobs], would be subjected to the approval or disapproval of the workers, after giving reports and answering questions.”
The delegates on the committee could be removed by an assembly at any time and the highest co-ordinating body of the Railway Federation was the “Revolutionary Committee,” whose members were elected by union assemblies in the various divisions. The control over the rail lines, according to Gaston Leval, “did not operate from above downwards, as in a statist and centralised system. The Revolutionary Committee had no such powers. . . The members of the. . . committee being content to supervise the general activity and to co-ordinate that of the different routes that made up the network.” [Gaston Leval, Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 255]
On the land, tens of thousands of peasants and rural day workers created voluntary, self-managed collectives. The quality of life improved as co-operation allowed the introduction of health care, education, machinery and investment in the social infrastructure. As well as increasing production, the collectives increased freedom. As one member puts it, “it was marvelous. . . to live in a collective, a free society where one could say what one thought, where if the village committee seemed unsatisfactory one could say. The committee took no big decisions without calling the whole village together in a general assembly. All this was wonderful.” [Ronald Fraser, Blood of Spain, p. 360]
We discuss the revolution in more detail in section I.8. For example, sections I.8.3 and I.8.4 discuss in more depth how the industrial collectives. The rural collectives are discussed in sections I.8.5 and I.8.6. We must stress that these sections are summaries of a vast social movement, and more information can be gathered from such works as Gaston Leval’s Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, Sam Dolfgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives, Jose Peirats’ The CNT in the Spanish Revolution and a host of other anarchist accounts of the revolution.
On the social front, anarchist organisations created rational schools, a libertarian health service, social centres, and so on. The Mujeres Libres (free women) combated the traditional role of women in Spanish society, empowering thousands both inside and outside the anarchist movement (see The Free Women of Spain by Martha A. Ackelsberg for more information on this very important organisation). This activity on the social front only built on the work started long before the outbreak of the war; for example, the unions often funded rational schools, workers centres, and so on.
The voluntary militias that went to free the rest of Spain from Franco were organised on anarchist principles and included both men and women. There was no rank, no saluting and no officer class. Everybody was equal. George Orwell, a member of the POUM militia (the POUM was a dissident Marxist party, influenced by Leninism but not, as the Communists asserted, Trotskyist) makes this clear:
“The essential point of the [militia] system was the social equality between officers and men. Everyone from general to private drew the same pay, ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and mingled on terms of complete equality. If you wanted to slap the general commanding the division on the back and ask him for a cigarette, you could do so, and no one thought it curious. In theory at any rate each militia was a democracy and not a hierarchy. It was understood that orders had to be obeyed, but it was also understood that when you gave an order you gave it as comrade to comrade and not as superior to inferior. There were officers and N.C.O.s, but there was no military rank in the ordinary sense; no titles, no badges, no heel-clicking and saluting. They had attempted to produce within the militias a sort of temporary working model of the classless society. Of course there was not perfect equality, but there was a nearer approach to it than I had ever seen or that I would have though conceivable in time of war. . . “ [Op. Cit., p. 26]
In Spain, however, as elsewhere, the anarchist movement was smashed between Stalinism (the Communist Party) on the one hand and Capitalism (Franco) on the other. Unfortunately, the anarchists placed anti-fascist unity before the revolution, thus helping their enemies to defeat both them and the revolution. Whether they were forced by circumstances into this position or could have avoided it is still being debated (see section I.8.10 for a discussion of why the CNT-FAI collaborated and section I.8.11 on why this decision was not a product of anarchist theory).
Orwell’s account of his experiences in the militia’s indicates why the Spanish Revolution is so important to anarchists:
“I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites. Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people, mainly though not entirely of working-class origin, all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality. In theory it was perfect equality, and even in practice it was not far from it. There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilised life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class- division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. . . One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all . . . In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. . .” [Op. Cit., pp. 83-84]
For more information on the Spanish Revolution, the following books are recommended: Lessons of the Spanish Revolution by Vernon Richards; Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and The CNT in the Spanish Revolution by Jose Peirats; Free Women of Spain by Martha A. Ackelsberg; The Anarchist Collectives edited by Sam Dolgoff; “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” by Noam Chomsky (in The Chomsky Reader); The Anarchists of Casas Viejas by Jerome R. Mintz; and Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.
The May-June events in France placed anarchism back on the radical landscape after a period in which many people had written the movement off as dead. This revolt of ten million people grew from humble beginnings. Expelled by the university authorities of Nanterre in Paris for anti-Vietnam War activity, a group of anarchists (including Daniel Cohn-Bendit) promptly called a protest demonstration. The arrival of 80 police enraged many students, who quit their studies to join the battle and drive the police from the university.
Inspired by this support, the anarchists seized the administration building and held a mass debate. The occupation spread, Nanterre was surrounded by police, and the authorities closed the university down. The next day, the Nanterre students gathered at the Sorbonne University in the centre of Paris. Continual police pressure and the arrest of over 500 people caused anger to erupt into five hours of street fighting. The police even attacked passers-by with clubs and tear gas.
A total ban on demonstrations and the closure of the Sorbonne brought thousands of students out onto the streets. Increasing police violence provoked the building of the first barricades. Jean Jacques Lebel, a reporter, wrote that by 1 a.m., “[l]iterally thousands helped build barricades. . . women, workers, bystanders, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron.” An entire night of fighting left 350 police injured. On May 7th, a 50,000-strong protest march against the police was transformed into a day-long battle through the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter. Police tear gas was answered by molotov cocktails and the chant “Long Live the Paris Commune!”
By May 10th, continuing massive demonstrations forced the Education Minister to start negotiations. But in the streets, 60 barricades had appeared and young workers were joining the students. The trade unions condemned the police violence. Huge demonstrations throughout France culminated on May 13th with one million people on the streets of Paris.
Faced with this massive protest, the police left the Latin Quarter. Students seized the Sorbonne and created a mass assembly to spread the struggle. Occupations soon spread to every French University. From the Sorbonne came a flood of propaganda, leaflets, proclamations, telegrams, and posters. Slogans such as “Everything is Possible,” “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible,” “Life without Dead Times,” and “It is Forbidden to Forbid” plastered the walls. “All Power to the Imagination” was on everyone’s lips. As Murray Bookchin pointed out, “the motive forces of revolution today. . . are not simply scarcity and material need, but also quality of everyday life,.. the attempt to gain control of one’s own destiny.” [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, pp. 249-250]
Many of the most famous slogans of those days originated from the Situationists. The Situationist International had been formed in 1957 by a small group of dissident radicals and artists. They had developed a highly sophisticated (if jargon riddled) and coherent analysis of modern capitalist society and how to supersede it with a new, freer one. Modern life, they argued, was mere survival rather than living, dominated by the economy of consumption in which everyone, everything, every emotion and relationship becomes a commodity. People were no longer simply alienated producers, they were also alienated consumers. They defined this kind of society as the “Spectacle.” Life itself had been stolen and so revolution meant recreating life. The area of revolutionary change was no longer just the workplace, but in everyday existence:
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” [quoted by Clifford Harper, Anarchy: A Graphic Guide, p. 153]
Like many other groups whose politics influenced the Paris events, the situationists argued that “the workers’ councils are the only answer. Every other form of revolutionary struggle has ended up with the very opposite of what it was originally looking for.” [quoted by Clifford Harper, Op. Cit., p. 149] These councils would be self-managed and not be the means by which a “revolutionary” party would take power. Like the anarchists of Noire et Rouge and the libertarian socialists of Socialisme ou Barbarie, their support for a self-managed revolution from below had a massive influence in the May events and the ideas that inspired it. Beneath the Paving Stones by Dark Star is a good anthology of situationist works relating to Paris 68 which also contains an eye-witness account of events.
On May 14th, the Sud-Aviation workers locked the management in its offices and occupied their factory. They were followed by the Cleon-Renault, Lockhead-Beauvais and Mucel-Orleans factories the next day. That night the National Theatre in Paris was seized to become a permanent assembly for mass debate. Next, France’s largest factory, Renault-Billancourt, was occupied. Often the decision to go on indefinite strike was taken by the workers without consulting union officials. By May 17th, a hundred Paris Factories were in the hands of their workers. The weekend of the 19th of May saw 122 factories occupied. By May 20th, the strike and occupations were general and involved six million people. Print workers said they did not wish to leave a monopoly of media coverage to TV and radio, and agreed to print newspapers as long as the press “carries out with objectivity the role of providing information which is its duty.” In some cases print-workers insisted on changes in headlines or articles before they would print the paper. This happened mostly with the right-wing papers such as ‘Le Figaro’ or ‘La Nation’.
With the Renault occupation, the Sorbonne occupiers immediately prepared to join the Renault strikers, and led by anarchist black and red banners, 4,000 students headed for the occupied factory. The state, bosses, unions and Communist Party were now faced with their greatest nightmare — a worker-student alliance. Ten thousand police reservists were called up and frantic union officials locked the factory gates. The Communist Party urged their members to crush the revolt. They united with the government and bosses to craft a series of reforms, but once they turned to the factories they were jeered out of them by the workers.
The struggle itself and the activity to spread it was organised by self-governing mass assemblies and co-ordinated by action committees. The strikes were often run by assemblies as well. As Murray Bookchin argues, the “hope [of the revolt] lay in the extension of self-management in all its forms — the general assemblies and their administrative forms, the action committees, the factory strike committees — to all areas of the economy, indeed to all areas of life itself.” [Op. Cit., pp. 251-252] Within the assemblies, “a fever of life gripped millions, a rewaking of senses that people never thought they possessed.” [Op. Cit., p. 251] It was not a workers’ strike or a student strike. It was a peoples’ strike that cut across almost all class lines.
On May 24th, anarchists organised a demonstration. Thirty thousand marched towards the Palace de la Bastille. The police had the Ministries protected, using the usual devices of tear gas and batons, but the Bourse (Stock Exchange) was left unprotected and a number of demonstrators set fire to it.
It was at this stage that some left-wing groups lost their nerve. The Trotskyist JCR turned people back into the Latin Quarter. Other groups such as UNEF and Parti Socialiste Unife (United Socialist Party) blocked the taking of the Ministries of Finance and Justice. Cohn-Bendit said of this incident “As for us, we failed to realise how easy it would have been to sweep all these nobodies away. . . .It is now clear that if, on 25 May, Paris had woken to find the most important Ministries occupied, Gaullism would have caved in at once. . . . “ Cohn-Bendit was forced into exile later that very night.
As the street demonstrations grew and occupations continued, the state prepared to use overwhelming means to stop the revolt. Secretly, top generals readied 20,000 loyal troops for use on Paris. Police occupied communications centres like TV stations and Post Offices. By Monday, May 27th, the Government had guaranteed an increase of 35% in the industrial minimum wage and an all round-wage increase of 10%. The leaders of the CGT organised a march of 500,000 workers through the streets of Paris two days later. Paris was covered in posters calling for a “Government of the People.” Unfortunately the majority still thought in terms of changing their rulers rather than taking control for themselves.
By June 5th most of the strikes were over and an air of what passes for normality within capitalism had rolled back over France. Any strikes which continued after this date were crushed in a military-style operation using armoured vehicles and guns. On June 7th, they made an assault on the Flins steelworks which started a four-day running battle which left one worker dead. Three days later, Renault strikers were gunned down by police, killing two. In isolation, those pockets of militancy stood no chance. On June 12th, demonstrations were banned, radical groups outlawed, and their members arrested. Under attack from all sides, with escalating state violence and trade union sell-outs, the General Strike and occupations crumbled.
So why did this revolt fail? Certainly not because “vanguard” Bolshevik parties were missing. It was infested with them. Fortunately, the traditional authoritarian left sects were isolated and outraged. Those involved in the revolt did not require a vanguard to tell them what to do, and the “workers’ vanguards” frantically ran after the movement trying to catch up with it and control it.
No, it was the lack of independent, self-managed confederal organisations to co-ordinate struggle which resulted in occupations being isolated from each other. So divided, they fell. In addition, Murray Bookchin argues that “an awareness among the workers that the factories had to be worked, not merely occupied or struck,” was missing. [Op. Cit., p. 269]
This awareness would have been encouraged by the existence of a strong anarchist movement before the revolt. The anti-authoritarian left, though very active, was too weak among striking workers, and so the idea of self-managed organisations and workers self-management was not widespread. However, the May-June revolt shows that events can change very rapidly. The working class, fused by the energy and bravado of the students, raised demands that could not be catered for within the confines of the existing system. The General Strike displays with beautiful clarity the potential power that lies in the hands of the working class. The mass assemblies and occupations give an excellent, if short-lived, example of anarchy in action and how anarchist ideas can quickly spread and be applied in practice.
Guernica – Illustration from ‘Anarchy: A Graphic Guide’ by Clifford Harper.